Dancer in the Dark – Bjork
A musical for people who don’t particularly like musicals, Von Trier’s digicam recalibration of the genre depicts a devastating breakdown of the American Dream.
Published on January 10, 2013 | Filed under Audiodrome: Music in Film
Dancer in the Dark

The final film in Lars Von Trier’s “Golden Hearts” trilogy (preceded by Breaking the Waves and The Idiots), Dancer in the Dark tells of Czech immigrant Selma (Björk), a young mother whose love for musicals helps her escape from her life as an impoverished factory worker in 60’s America. On the verge of blindness because of a genetic disorder, she battles with deteriorating eyesight to save money for an operation that will save her son from the same fate. Things take a turn for the tragic when she discovers her savings have disappeared and she goes to confront her cash-strapped landlord…

Unfolding as Von Trier’s digicam recalibration of the Hollywood musical, Dancer in the Dark features a number of musical numbers which dreamily emerge from the narrative as Selma’s flights of fancy; giving life to her day-dreams and revealing her inner thoughts and philosophies. Inspired by the Dogma ’95 manifesto, the film was shot on hand-held digital cameras, giving it a washed out look and pseudo-documentary style. The musical numbers were filmed with static cameras and the colours digitally emphasised, ensuring these sequences really stand out. Björk’s innovative score (released under the title Selmasongs) incorporates the noises of machinery from the factory were Selma works (Cvalda), passing trains (I’ve Seen It All), a stuck record needle (Scatterheart) and other such mundane, everyday noises. Textured, lush and incredibly moving, it is one of the Icelandic musician’s best works. While Björk was responsible for scoring the music, many of the lyrics were written by Von Trier and Icelandic poet Sjón. The vocals are as emotive as anything by Björk, indeed some of the actors commented that the singer didn’t so much act, as feel, while making the film. She sings as Selma on the soundtrack album, but as one critic pointed out, “(Björk) isn’t too far beneath the surface.”

Dancer in the Dark

While traces of her earlier album Homogenic can be found in some of the crunching beats sampled from found-sound recordings, for Selmasongs Björk also draws inspiration from more classical sources, and of course, from musicals. The exuberant and irrepressible In the Musicals, with its stomping beats, cascading strings and harps and quirky percussion, is a sweeping serenade to Selma’s love of musicals. The ominous woodwind of 107 Steps as Selma dances to the gallows, builds with militant percussion and booming brass, while the string-laden Scatterheart tugs on the heart as Selma sings to her sleeping son, confessing that she won’t always be there for him, but through the sacrifices she makes, her love for him will always remain. The awesome sense of movement and elation in New World ensures the film ends on a note of quiet optimism. But only just.

Some of the lyrics that appear on Selmasongs are different from those sang in the film, notably in Scatterheart, in which the vocals of various actors are completely excised. The songs My Favorite Things and Dear Gene – The Next to Last Song do not appear on the album. When she came to record the duet I’ve Seen It All, Björk invited Radiohead front-man Thom Yorke to perform with her, as she felt that Peter Stormore, who duets with her onscreen, couldn’t sing. The song went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. It’s testament to Björk that Selmasongs not only provides a fitting score for the film, but also works perfectly as a typical (if there is such a thing!) Björk album; so singular and idiosyncratic is her artistic vision.

While I’m not a huge admirer of musicals, I was caught off guard by Dancer in the Dark and quietly devastated by it. Björk’s disarming performance, the purity and strength of Selma, Von Trier’s lack of sentimentally and systematic destruction of the American Dream, the unusual and innovative music numbers, the powerful wallop of that ending; this is a musical for people who don’t particularly like musicals.

One of the highlights on the soundtrack for me is I’ve Seen It All, a duet which tells of Selma’s quiet experience of the world and her place in it. It’s about two characters reconciling their differing outlooks on life and sharing their experiences; one focusing on outer, the other on inner.

Jeff: You’ve never been to Niagara Falls?

Selma: I have seen water
It’s water, that’s all

Jeff: The Eiffel Tower
And the Empire State?

Selma: My pulse was as high
On my very first date

Both: I’ve seen it all
I’ve seen the dark
I’ve seen the brightness in one little spark
I’ve seen what I choose and I’ve seen what I need
And that is enough
To want more would be greed
I’ve seen what I was and I know what I’ll be
I’ve seen it all there is no more to see.

Note the finality of the last line. Given the gut-wrenching, and arguably highly manipulative denouement of Dancer in the Dark, this song is imbued with immense tragedy and sadness; but retains a strangely hopeful air. Pure poetry. Enjoy.

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James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series). He currently contributes to Exquisite Terror and Diabolique, and has also written for Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.
James Gracey

  • LabSplice

    And here I thought I WASN’T going to spend the rest of the work day listening to I’ve Seen It All on repeat. Another great focus for you, James, and you highlighted my absolute favorite song of the film.

  • Dylan

    I have purposely stayed clear of this film for years, only because I’ve heard tales of how terribly depressing it is. However, the soundtrack may be something I need to check out sooner than later. What a great track and post!

  • James

    Oh no! I hope I haven’t deterred anyone from watching this. While it is VERY grim (like I said, I was devastated by it), I think you should check it out at least once. I’ve only seen it once but it’s still so vivid in my head. Björk’s performance – and her music – are just incredible.

    Lapslice, it was only ever going to be I’ve Seen It All. I couldn’t stop listening to it over the last few weeks. Still can’t. It was what made me decide to review the soundtrack.