In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens… : Dancer in the Dark (2000)

“In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens”. These are words spoken in Dancer in the Dark which have ironic significance as this is a musical filled with dreadfulness in its unfolding tragedy and subverts musical traditions for sinister meanings.

Set in 1960s America, Selma is an Czech immigrant who came to America to benefit her son Gene. Working tirelessly in the local factory and hiding knowledge of an hereditary degenerative disease of blindness, Selma saves her money hoping to get Gene an operation to prevent him suffering the same fate. However Bill, Selma’s landlord in desperate need for money to repay his bank taking advantage of Selma’s vulnerability by stealing her money leading to an inevitable decline. This synopsis makes Dancer in the Dark sound like a standard drama. However this is a Lars Von Trier film, anyone aware of his filmmaking will know his unconventional style. Instead of standard drama Dancer in the Dark contains an awkwardness which at first is hard to distinguish if it’s deliberate. Selma is represented as a childish character whose mannerisms (waving at a train as it goes by) and her obsession with Hollywood musicals made it hard to believe she is a responsible Mother. This also applies to performances, there is a constant sense of otherness as if you’re witnessing an amateur production. Not to say the performances were inadequate but the direction involved along with hand-held cinematography’s intense movements and frequent cuts orchestrated the narrative into a series of awkward scenes contributing to an unsettling environment. At least at first.

Once Dancer in the Dark‘s turning point is reached its awkwardness reaches potential and the unsettling environment begins to make sense. Selma’s childishness intensifies into her musical daydreams. Dancer in the Dark used musicals numbers not to show expressions of joyous optimism but Selma’s denial of grim reality. The musical numbers thus contain an unconventionality, they were not vibrant and glamorous but unskilful and bizarre. Each musical numbers’ composition lacked structure, for example on a slow moving train Selma dances with workers on an open carriage followed by a couple dancing outside a near-by house. This unstructured style reveals Selma’s wild imagination briefly rejecting her dreadful reality. It was Selma’s childish fantasy to be a musical star yet Dancer in the Dark conveys this as simply an unrealistic obsession. It gives Dancer in the Dark‘s musical numbers a subversive context which is creatively intelligent as the musical numbers’ abnormality showed Selma’s delusional mental state. Dancer in the Dark though at first will take time to become accustomed to, it transforms into an exceptionally creative film which is brilliant in its unconventionality.