The Musical Defense
If you know anything about Lars von Trier, a Danish film screenwriter and director, it is safe to say that his 2000 melodrama musical film Dancer in the Dark is planned and executed through the dialogue, plot, cinematography, character, and music.
The film stars Bjork, who plays a Selma, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia working in a factory in the United States. She befriends Kathy, played by Catherine Deneuve, who learns her secret that she is going blind. The plot takes an unfortunate twist when Selma’s landlord and police deputy Bill, played by David Morse, consoles her while she helps talk him through his own struggles with his wife, Linda, played by Cara Seymour, who is materialistic, spending their money, and threatening to cause Bill to lose all that he has worked for. At the moment he shows sympathy. Selma shares a secret with Bill about her blindness and her savings for her son’s eye operation. Left with no other alternative, Bill creates a plan to steal Selma’s savings without her knowing to save himself from his financial crisis.
One evening after Selma and Bill are finished talking, Selma tells Bill goodbye and stashes her earned salary in a tin box hidden behind an iron board unbeknownst to her that Bill has not left the house, watching her stash her savings. The following day, Selma’s fired from her job for breaking a machine from a prior shift and is given her remaining salary. She finds all her money missing and runs to Bill to report the crime but learns that Bill has brought his savings box with full of money home. Connecting their conversation days before with a savings box full of cash, Selma confronts Bill of his crime. Bill tells her that the only way she will ever get the money back is by killing him. After killing Bill and taking her money back, Selma deposits her savings for her son’s surgery at the hospital to keep from the police. She is brought to trial and found guilty of the murder under first degree and sentenced to death by hanging.
Through all of Selma’s ordeal, her only concern was to give her son the opportunity at life. Many critics found the film to be silly and outright unrealistic with the musical aspect. However, I beg to differ. The film is not one bit silly because of its varying styles of cinematography or its unorthodox musical numbers. If anything, these choices only make it more provocative, tear jerking, and heart-wrenching.
Dancer in the Dark cleverly incorporates music as a drawback from the scene to communicate Selma’s thoughts and the way she perceives the world around her. The scene at the train tracks with Selma dancing on the train signifies her independence from her steadily growing blindness and her imagination to be a famous Hollywood movie star. The minor drawbacks that Selma experiences are designed to amplify her struggle to be a movie star yet is unable because of her blindness. After the dancing scene, the audience is drawn back to the reality overseeing her feeling her way on the train tracks as she heads home.
The audience encounters several more musical scenes like the train scene such as murder scene at Bill’s home. After she shoots him aimlessly several times, Bill stands up as if he rose from the dead and dances with Selma. At first, the audience might be forced to sneer at how foolish and illogical the scene is. However, I would disagree again, considering the artistic style of the film. The musical dance scene was designed to justify the murder by Selma. Her asking for forgiveness from Bill and blaming his materialistic wife for his death is a profound scene of a human soul finding comfort for just having taken a life if another human being. Bill’s spirit encourages Selma to run before the police arrive.
The musical aspect is a vital one, despite some critics feeling it is childish and silly. Lars von Trier captured the stories of protagonist and antagonist in their unique atmosphere like a novelist does with his unique character physical and personality characteristics. Protagonists, Selma and Bill lose their lives for their own reasons, but ultimately by the hands of the antagonist, Lina.