This piece was written for our screening of The Boy Friend, I wanted to show a contrast in modern musical conventions and how Lars Von Trier had interpreted the legacy of the Hollywood musical and mixed it with raw emotion and reality.
“This isn’t the last song,
They don’t know us you see,
It’s only the last song,
If we let it be.”
Dancer In The Dark - Lars Von Trier (2000)
Lars Von Trier had always wanted to make a musical and capture the magic of Gene Kelly films he had seen in his youth, He wondered how he could approach making one and thought it would be interesting to shoot a musical in his faux real life Dogma documentary style.
The result is Dancer In The Dark and it is one of the most harrowing musicals ever filmed.
The film starts in the traditional style with an Orchestral Overture, combined with abstract paintings, which are a motif of Von Trier’s work. The tragic plot revolves around Bjork who gives a gentle and honest performance as Selma a Czechoslovakian who has failing sight and escapes into musical fantasy while at work in a small town American factory in the 1950’s.
The story starts with Selma in rehearsals for a community production of The Sound Of Music in which she plays Maria she is helped by her work colleague Cathy (Catherine Denuve), Trier manages to through in a little joke as one of the characters comments that Selma “Sings funny”. Selma is naïve and child like talks with most of the characters about musicals and how there conventions don’t apply to real life, whenever a musical number starts its built up for environmental rhythms such as factory machinery or a train going across tracks. Selma loves going to the musicals but sadly due to her eyesight can’t actually see the Berkeley dance routines so her friend Cathy has to trace the moments out on her palm.
Trier plants clues of what will to come as Selma talks about hating the last song as when it builds up and the camera pulls up and goes through the roof that the story ends, she leaves the cinema after the second to last song so the film can continue forever.
Upon seeing the film for the first time I wish I had left during the second to last song, the final song is called “The Next To Last Song” which is cut horribly short due to the films devastating conclusion and the camera silently pulls up and out of the roof. No violins and no choir. It’s a heart stopping moment and knocks the breath out of you.
Selma has come to America to raise funds for an operation on her son’s eyes that he would be unable to have in Czechoslovakia. In typical Trier fashion things don’t go to plan and it ends with the slaughter of an innocent who has been cruelly exploited with horrific and inevitable results. The musical numbers are filmed in a wonky handheld style and the fantasy is firmly placed in reality no large Busby Berkley numbers with lavish costumes and enormous sets, its all quite kinetic using a lot of movement as well as dance. Bjork's songs are beautiful and fragile like her character full of joy and menace and are co-written with Bjork regular Chris bell while the lyrics provide narrative direction and were written by Lars and Sjon Sigurdsson.
The film is helped by a great ensemble cast of including some Trier regulars Jean Marc Bar, Udo Kier, Peter Stormare, David Morse and Stellan Sarsgard.
Lars cleverly casts Joel Grey from Cabaret in a cameo as Selma’s idol tap dancer Oldrich Novy.
I feel Dancer In The Dark is a perfect musical for people who struggle with the conventions of the musical, its emotionally engaging and damaging and will bring tears to the hardest of hearts.