"I think she sings funny"
Living in rural Washington state in 1964, factory worker Selma (Björk) tries out for a local theater production of The Sound of Music. One of the other auditioning actors remarks, “I think she sings funny.” Indeed she does. And yet that is precisely Björk’s allure. For all its fluffy pop-stylings, in her solo work and that with Sugarcubes, her voice is incredibly seductive, in its range, power, expressiveness, its embellishments, and the way she plays with the very sound and musicality of language. And this is also precisely why she is perfect for the role of Selma in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. Björk is at her best when she is singing, and it is in her vocal performances that the film’s ruminations on joy, fidelity, and sacrifice are most profound. Even though she won the Best Actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it is still somewhat of a surprise (at least to me), given the strength and eccentricity of her public persona, that Björk delivers such a delicate and commanding performance. She’s helped by the film’s efforts to make us forget that she’s an international pop phenom. And unlike Madonna, who is her closest actress equivalent, Björk does manage, at least in this performance, to make us forget her and see only Selma.
Selma’s story is that she left Communist Czechoslovakia for the better economic and, more importantly, medical opportunities available in America. You see, thanks to a genetic weakness, she is quickly going blind, as do all members of her family early in their adulthood. Though it is too late for her, there is an operation that can save the sight of her son Gene (Vladan Kostic), provided Selma can stockpile enough money in time. She takes extra shifts at the factory and fills her spare time at home and during breaks at work placing hairpins on tagboard cards. That is, she is always working, and always at the most tedious and menial of labors. Even though the roughly $2300 she has accumulated isn’t quite enough, it means everything to Selma and Gene and their (or, more properly, his) future. When the money is stolen from her, it quite literally becomes a matter of life or death.
On some level, then, Dancer in the Dark is a commentary on the plight of working class poverty. It also excoriates the entitlements of wealth, or, rather, the sense of entitlement produced by the possession of wealth. Selma’s landlord Bill (David Morse) is a local cop who, after his wife Linda (Cara Seymour) has run through his apparently impressive inheritance in her pursuit of the perfect household with Jackie O style, finds himself facing bankruptcy and foreclosure on the couple’s home. Bill is unable to say no to his wife, or even tell her that they are out of money. When Bill takes advantage of Selma’s fading eyesight in the half-light of evening, hiding so he can see where she stashes her hard-earned funds, we know that his answer is to steal her money. Bill feels as if he is somehow entitled to this money, as it will keep the bankers at bay at least for a short while, even though he knows full well that this paltry sum represents all the sacrifices and hopes of Selma’s life.
Amongst all the toiling, scrimping, and saving, there is little room in Selma’s life for any joy. What little pleasure she finds is centered on her love of movie musicals, specifically her thrill at being in the local production of The Sound of Music, and her trips to the movies with factory coworker Kathy (the always stunning Catherine Deneuve). Of course, as Selma goes increasingly blind, Kathy must tell her what’s happening on screen (even “dancing” with her fingers on the palm of Selma’s hand to mimic the movements on screen). As her life spins increasingly out of her own control, Selma retreats more and more into a fantasy world where that life becomes a musical for, as she observes and as we all know, nothing ever goes totally wrong in a musical. The song and dance scenes she imagines emerge in seamless transitions from Selma’s grinding daily life: in this other realm, “there is always someone to catch” her when she falls (as she sings in a number entitled “In the Musicals”).
The ambient sounds of Selma’s environment provide a musical tempo to her life, and are the points of departure for her mental escapes. So, in the number “Cvalda,” the Fordist rhythms of the production line and the metallic clang of the machinery blend into a joyous dance number featuring Selma’s co-workers. And in “I’ve Seen It All,” the clacking of a train’s wheels leads into Selma’s duet with her would-be suitor Jeff (Peter Stormare), who challenges Selma about her regrets and how she/we make peace with the events of our lives. Indeed, the local theater production is perfectly germane, for the sounds of music, the musical qualities of life, and the possibility that music might offer (a limited) transcendence in an otherwise joyless world underlie all the tragedies of Dancer in the Dark. Dancer‘s musical numbers are made even more effective by their settings. Selma’s imaginary world isn’t some detached, idyllic place where her environment is different and she is someone else. Rather, her magical retreat is directly connected to, produced by, and located in the material reality of her life. “Cvalda” takes place in dreary factory surroundings, just as “I’ve Seen It All” takes place on the dusty railroad tracks along which Selma is walking. This transition between the real and the idealized is marked by a shift from video to film footage in these scenes, a devices adding depth of color and texture largely absent from Selma’s “real” world.
And yet Selma’s mental flights are the film’s major potential target of criticism, as they are produced by and connected to the exploitation of women. Like the director’s Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark heaps misery after misery on the head of a single woman, seemingly only to see how long she can take it. While some might read this vague investigating, or even testifying to, the strength of women in the face of adversity, it is just as easy to read it as taking pleasure in degrading women. This is not the case, however, in Dancer in the Dark. Foremost because, unlike Breaking the Waves, the film’s preoccupation is not degradation but injustice.
Dancer in the Dark, for all its fantastical musical excursions and all its tear-jerkiness nevertheless brings home the sobering reminder that justice does not always prevail. And while in Breaking the Waves, Bess McNeill achieves redemption in the end, there is none available to Selma. All there is and it is everything is her devotion to her son and the nobility of her actions, and yet the ground still falls away beneath her feet.