Lars von Trier’s 2000 musical Dancer in the Dark is considered by many to be one of his finest films. Starring Icelandic musician Björk as a struggling Czech immigrant in the US, the film tells a moving story about personal hardships and the flaws of political systems. The third addition to von Trier’s Golden Heart Trilogy, Dancer in the Dark ended up winning the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Influenced by the aesthetic qualities of the Dogme 95 movement, von Trier models his visual narrative after the documentary style of filmmaking by using hand-held cameras. Although Dancer in the Dark violates the “Vow of Chastity”, von Trier uses the spirit of the movement to create one of the most original musicals. However, it is an undeniable fact that Björk’s performance as Selma is the central force of the film which the director uses as a powerful foundation for his cinematic experiments.
The basic premise of Selma’s condition is a uniquely compelling one, featuring her as a single mother and a factory worker who is forced to navigate the trials of life with a degenerative eye problem. It is remarkable that this was one of Björk’s only acting projects because she steps into Selma’s shoes with ease, urging the audience to feel and empathise with her pain as well as her fantasies. The musician also composed and sang the musical score for the film which plays a pivotal part in the narrative progression. Her I’ve Seen It All received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.
Selma’s life is fundamentally tragic; she saves whatever money she can so that her son does not have to suffer from the same disease. Her only refuge is the world of music and cinema, listening to Hollywood musicals in a local cinema where her friend describes everything to her (like Alfredo from Cinema Paradiso). Lars von Trier combines the fantasy of Selma’s daydreams with the harshness of her reality, using oneiric techniques to launch a memorable critique of political manipulations and the brutality of capital punishment. The reason why Selma’s story is so effective is because of Björk’s beautiful performance which is characterised by an overwhelming pathos.
In an interview, von Trier explained how Björk tapped into the feelings of her character: “I had my first meeting with Björk two years ago. We sat down, the two of us, and said the challenge is, that we should work together. And that we should submit to each other. But the problem was that first of all, I didn’t know how she acted. I only saw her in a small music video. But she fascinated me and I still am, but the problem was that she was so goddamn talented. That’s the only way I can put it. She has this little girl kind of way that she is, but she is extremely clever, I must say. I’ve never worked with anyone like her. And that is, of course, the good side of it. The bad side of it is all of this gave her this big pain. From feeling the whole thing.”
Some of von Tier’s comments seem problematic now because Björk later accused the filmmaker of sexually harassing her. Even back when she won the coveted Best Actress prize at Cannes, Björk skipped the press conference and her acceptance speech was described as “laconic and low-key”. The public reception of Dancer in the Dark wasn’t devoid of controversy either since many believed that it was undeserving of the Palme d’Or. It was written off as melodramatic and shallow but there was something in there that resonated with others who found Dancer in the Dark to be extremely innovative and Björk’s portrayal of Selma to be painfully real.
Despite the critical acclaim and the accolades, the musician felt that there was something missing from her work: “I can’t really relate to it. … I just watch it and go ‘blech.’ I can’t look at it from the outside. I just remember what happened. I know I gave everything I got and a lot more, so I feel very good, very proud about the film. If I close my eyes I know all my heart’s in there. … I’m not controlling like that at all about my acting or my image or visual stuff. I wish I was more ambitious — well I don’t really — because I just don’t care.”