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Dancer in the Dark
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Dancer in the Dark

Dancer in the Dark is a musical film from the year 2000. It was directed by Lars von Trier and stars Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse and Peter Stormare. The movie is part three in a trilogy of films by von Trier that included "Breaking the Waves" and "The Idiots (Danish: Idioterne)".

Warning: Plot details follow.

The film, which takes place in America in 1964, focuses around Selma (Björk), a Czech immigrant who has moved to the States with her teenaged son, Gene. They live a life of poverty as Selma works at a factory with her good friend Cvalda (Deneuve). She rents a trailer home on the property of town policeman Bill (Morse) and his wife Linda. She is also pursued by the amourous Jeff (Stormare) who also works at the factory.

What no one in Selma's life knows is that she has a hereditary, degenerative disease which is quickly causing her to go blind. She has been saving up every penny that she makes (in a tin can in her kitchen) to pay for an operation which will prevent her young son from the same fate.

To escape the misery of her daily life Selma accompanies Cvalda to the local cinema where together they watch fabulous Hollywood musicals (or more accurately, Selma listens as Cvalda describes them to her and acts out the dance steps upon Selma's hand using her fingers.) In her day-to-day life, when things are too unbearably upsetting, Selma actually slips into a trance-like state where she imagines the ordinary circumstances and individuals around her have erupted into elaborate musical theater numbers. These trances are usually triggered by some sort of real life noise (anything from factory machines buzzing to the sound of a flag rapping against a flag pole in the wind.)

Unfortunately she slips into one such trance while working a machine at the factory, which she breaks. She is fired from her job. Soon Jeff and Cvalda begin to realize that Selma can barely see at all. Additionally, Bill reveals to Selma that he has had a gambling problem and asks her for a loan, which she declines. To comfort Bill Selma reveals her secret blindness, hoping that together they can share one another's secret. Bill then hides in the corner of Selma's home, knowing she can't see him, and watches as she puts some money in her kitchen tin.

The next day when Selma comes home she finds the tin is empty. She goes next door to report the theft to Bill and Linda only to hear Linda discussing how Bill has brought home their safety deposit box to count their savings. She additionally reveals that Bill has "confessed" his affair with Selma, and that Selma must move out immediately. Knowing that Bill was broke and that the money he is counting must be hers, she confronts him and attempts to take the money back. He draws a gun on her and in a struggle he is shot.

Linda discovers the two of them and assumed that Selma was attempting to steal the money and runs off to tell the police. Bill begs Selma to take his life, and she shoots him several times but he doesn't die. In the end she bashes his head in with the safety deposit box. (In one of the most disturbing and moving scenes of the film, Selma slips into a trance and imagines that Bill's corpse stands up and slow dances with her, urging her to run to freedom.) She does, and takes the money to the Institute for the Blind to pay for her son's operation before the police can take it from her.

Eventually Selma is caught and put on trial. It is here that she is pegged as a Communist sympathizer and murderess. Although she tells as much truth about the situation as she can, she refuses to reveal Bill's secret because she promised not to. Additionally, when her claims that the reason she didn't have any money was because she was sending it to her father in Czecholslovakia are proven false, she is convicted and sentenced to death.

Cvalda and Jeff eventually put the pieces of the puzzle together and get back Selma's money, using it instead to pay for a trial lawyer who can free her. Selma becomes furious and refuses the lawyer, opting instead to die rather than allow her son to go blind. In the end Selma is hung to death, an innocent woman doing nothing more than trying to make a better life for her child.

Actress Björk Guðmundsdóttir, who is known mostly for her musical career, has described the process of making this film as so emotionally taxing and trying that she will not make any appearances in film ever again.

The movie was filmed with over 100 digital cameras so that multiple angles of every scene could be captured and filmed. It debuted at the Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews and it won the Golden Palm award and Bjork won the Best Actress award. The song "I've Seen It All" was nominated for an Oscar for best song. A list of all of the various awards and nominations:

In the light of all this acclaim it should be noted that not all critical reaction was positive. Some reviews claim that the movie is a noisy, painful, incoherent mess.

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of this film is how Von Trier very effectively uses virtually every negative Cold-War era film cliche we've ever seen slung at the Eastern Block to describe Middle America: the relentless, demoralizing, dehumanizing work; grey, dismal weather, buildings & people; crushing hopelessness; inaccessible basic needs like medical care; oppressive, callous, deadly authority & treacherous friends; even a dingy babushka for Selma. It is a grim & sobering vision.


Movies by Lars von Trier
The Element of Crime | Epidemic | Zentropa | Breaking the Waves | The Idiots | Dancer in the Dark; | Dogville | Manderlay | Washington