Dancer in the Dark (2000)
I’ve been a fan of Björk’s music for a fairly long time now, but I’d always avoided hearing Selmasongs, the soundtrack album for Dancer in the Dark. That’s mainly because I don’t like listening to musicals’ OSTs until I’ve seen and heard the tracks in their original cinematic context. However, I was kind of dreading watching Dancer in the Dark: I’d heard it was a good movie, but a book about Björk I read several years ago gave a summary of the film’s plot, and it sounded like pretty much the most unrelentingly depressing story ever.
Well, it’s not relentlessly depressing, mainly because the musical numbers (both the songs and the choreography) are really, really good. I know that any cheerfulness in those scenes is tempered by the irony that the conventions of Hollywood musicals are being applied to such a downbeat story, but it was something that worked for me, if only because I’m a fan of her music outside of this film.
The film was made in between Björk’s albums Homogenic and Vespertine (by general consensus among her best), and I could hear aspects of both those albums in the film’s arrangements: the incorporation of cacophanous machinery into “Cvalda” kind of recalls the noisy beats of songs like “5 Years” and “Pluto” in the latter half of Homogenic, whereas other songs have more delicate arrangements reminiscent of the “microbeats” of Vespertine. (The echoing, bassy male backing voices in “I’ve Seen It All” kind of came across to me as an inversion of the female backing vocals that repeat the phrase “she loves him” in “Pagan Poetry”.) And of course, as this is a musical, occasionally you’ll hear something that could have come from Björk’s most famous song/video: “It’s Oh So Quiet”.
The standout song is probably “I’ve Seen It All”, which contains the memorable couplet:
What about China? Have you seen the Great Wall?
All walls are great, if the roof doesn’t fall!
I can’t decide whether those lines are deceptively simple and genuinely clever, or merely endearingly cute and childlike. Whatever it is, the rhyme works in context, and I really like it.
Since watching the film, I’ve heard the Selmasongs album, and for the performance of “I’ve Seen It All” on the CD, the film’s actor Peter Stormare is replaced by everyone’s favourite vehicle-phobic, asymmetrical-eylidded, multi-instrumentalist rock frontman, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. But he doesn’t just sing the few lines that Peter Stormare sang in the film; instead, all the song’s lines alternate between Björk and Yorke. That means that although in the film the song made sense as a question-and-answer conversation, that doesn’t carry across to the album version, and for that reason I have to say that I prefer the movie version. (Sorry, Thom!)
So, it’s safe to say that the music was my main focus when watching the film. What about its other aspects?
A couple of reviews of the film I’ve read since watching it have noted that its filming style was offputting, the camera rarely showing what you want to see. Hentai Cop’s review, for example:
… Lars makes the film really tough to watch on a technical level. He shoots the film digitally and handheld, mostly in close-ups that frequently zoom in and out. The style is disorienting and reclusive, which makes Bjork the main focus of every shot (and complements her character’s blindness, as the the frame becomes very limiting).
Comments like that surprise me, since I didn’t find the camera’s motion any more distracting or offputting than in anything else handheld – say, an episode of The Thick of It.
So, unlike some people, I had no problem with the film’s abrupt musical transitions, with the concept of mixing upbeat Hollywood musical with downbeat misery, or with its filming style. In fact, it was only really the story’s melodramatic nature that put me off the film at all: accepting the inherent implausibility of the plot was, for me, by far the biggest hurdle. I felt like I would probably get most out of the film if it made me feel that the doom that would befall Selma was inevitable, that the film could never end any other way; instead, there were several points in the film when I felt myself thinking, “No, I can’t believe that in real life, this character would really be that stubborn! Surely this time this character will, for once, make the sensible decision to get out of this situation!” (But – spoiler! – she does not.)
Despite that, I liked the film a lot, even if that was more for the musical sequences than anything that happened in between them.
Other reviewers more cinematically literate than me can say where this stands in the von Trier oeuvre. As it’s the first of his films I’ve watched, I can’t do anything like that. In fact, I don’t know whether I’ll ever watch enough of his films to be able to do that – right now, all I know is that I never, ever want to watch Antichrist…
[4 out of 5]