Written by Lars Von Trier
Produced by Vibeke Windelov and Peter Aalbaeck Jensen
Starring: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Cara Setmout, Peter Stormore, Siobhan Fallon Hogan and Joel Grey.
Country: Denmark, Spain, Argentina, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, United States, United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Norway
Release date: December 8, 2000
Why you should see it?
Dancer in the Dark is a musical drama film. This is the third film of Von Trier’s “Golden Heart Trilogy” – The other two films are: “Breaking Waves” (1996) and “The Idiots” (1998). This was truly an international co-production between several companies in thirteen countries.
The film was shot with a handheld camera in order to say it was inspired by Dogme 95’s look. Von Trier is one of the creator of the Dogme 95 manifesto, but this film broke the rules #2, #6, #8 and #10 of the ten points manifesto. Those rules said: #2 the sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music not be used unless occurs within the scene being filmed; #6 the film must not contain superficial action (as murder, or crime, etc); #8 Genre movies are not acceptable, and #10 the director must not be credited.
Despite that the film broke several rules of the Dogme 95 manifesto the film is worth to watch because it is one of Von Trier’s more commercial films and easy to watch, and of course this film is one of the nails in the coffin of the manifesto, also the film have a very insipid plot that seems to be borrow of a 1912 trashy novel is so simple and quite depressive.
The film is set in Washington state in 1964 and focuses on Selma Ježková, a Czech immigrant who has moved to the United States with her son, Gene Ježek. They live a life of poverty as Selma works at a factory with her good friend Kathy, whom she nicknames Cvalda. She rents a trailer home on the property of town policeman Bill Houston and his wife Linda. She is also pursued by the shy but persistent Jeff who also works at the factory.
What no one in Selma’s life knows is that she has a hereditary degenerative disease which is gradually causing her to go blind. She has been saving up every penny that she makes (in a candy tin in her kitchen) to pay for an operation which will prevent her young son from suffering 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, to the annoyance of the other theater patrons, or acts out the dance steps upon Selma’s hand using her fingers). In her day-to-day life, when things are too boring or upsetting, Selma slips into daydreams or perhaps a trance-like state where she imagines the ordinary circumstances and individuals around her have erupted into elaborate musical theater numbers. These songs, as do many of Björk’s songs, use some sort of real-life noise (from factory machines buzzing to the sound of a flag rapping against a flag pole in the wind) as an underlying rhythm. Unfortunately, Selma slips into one such trance while working at the factory. Soon Jeff and Cvalda begin to realize that Selma can barely see at all. Additionally, Bill reveals to Selma that his materialistic wife Linda spends more than his salary, there is no money left from his inheritance, and he is behind in payments and the bank is going to take his house. He asks Selma for a loan, but she declines. He regrets telling Selma his secret. To comfort Bill, Selma reveals her secret blindness, hoping that together they can keep each other’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, after having broken her machine the night before through careless error, Selma is fired from her job. When she comes home to put her final wages away 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 safe deposit box to count their savings. Linda 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 wounded. Linda discovers the two of them and, assuming that Selma is attempting to steal the money, runs off to tell the police at Bill’s command. Bill then begs Selma to take his life, telling her that this will be the only way she will ever reclaim the money that he stole from her. Selma shoots at him several times, but due to her blindness manages to only maim Bill further. In the end, she performs acoup de grâce with the safe deposit box. In one of the scenes, 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.
Selma is caught and eventually 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, saying that she had promised not to. Additionally, when her claim that the reason she didn’t have any money was because she had been sending it to her father in Czechoslovakia is proven false, she is convicted and given the death penalty. 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 to face the death penalty rather than let her son go blind, but she is deeply distraught as she awaits her death. Although a sympathetic female prison guard named Brenda tries to comfort her, the other state officials show no feelings and are eager to see her executed. Brenda encourages Selma to walk. On her way to the gallows, Selma goes to hug the other men on death row while singing to them. However, on the gallows, she becomes terrified, so that she must be strapped to a collapse board. Her hysteria when the hood is placed over her face delays the execution. Selma begins crying hysterically and Brenda cries with her, but Cvalda rushes to inform her that the operation was successful and that Gene will see. Relieved, Selma sings the final song on the gallows with no musical accompaniment, although she is hanged before she finishes. A curtain is then drawn in front of her body, while the missing part of the song shows on the screen: “They say it’s the last song/They don’t know us, you see/It’s only the last song/If we let it be.”