Dancer in the Dark is the film Lars von Trier directed prior to Dogville, which really impressed me. This one stars Björk, the only famous person from Iceland, in a highly melodramatic role. She plays Selma, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who works in a factory operating a scary machine that presses sheet metal into tubs. After putting in a shift at the factory — sometimes two — she comes home to her trailer and makes extra money putting straight pins into cards which come ten thousand to a box. She saves up all her money — two thousand dollars — in a candy box so that she can pay to get an operation to save her son's eyesight. Blindness runs in her family and it's too late to save her own vision; she starts off wearing thick glasses and before the film is half over she can't see a thing. Going blind is the least of her misfortunes: as the film goes on she has her savings stolen, then is framed for murder and sentenced to death. Thus it is hardly surprising that she escapes from the torture chamber that is her life by escaping into a world of fantasy in which she is the lead character in a bright, colorful musical.

I'm not sure what cultural niche is held by musicals these days. The idea of people spontaneously singing and dancing in the middle of a narrative was long out of favor — think "Cop Rock," which was pretty much universally mocked in 1990. Having grown up in this era, I tend to think of musicals as escapist entertainment for the Third World poor. Your life sucks, so you go spend three hours in a world where someone in a colorful costume is dancing around and singing into a telephone in Hindi and nothing bad ever happens. Certainly this is the rationale given for Selma's obsession with musicals in Dancer. But recently they've been making a comeback in the US as entertainment that isn't strictly for proles or played for laughs: Chicago and Moulin Rouge were taken seriously enough to win awards. Even the "Buffy" musical was not just funny but also really lovely in parts.

So it's hard to know what to make of these musical numbers. When people start dancing around it seems like parody: we've got this deadly serious trial scene, and then all of a sudden the color saturation goes up 200% and the witnesses are tap-dancing on the judge's bench and stuff, and it seems like we're supposed to be laughing (or, even more likely, cringing). Partly this is because the choreography is so half-assed that it doesn't seem like we're meant to be enjoying these scenes. But then it turns out that the filmmakers had no fewer than a hundred cameras rolling for the musical bits. So maybe we were supposed to find these scenes to be moments of transcendent beauty or something but the filmmakers just didn't know how to properly film a musical. (Nor anything else — in the non-musical segments the camera weaves around drunkenly, with everything going blurry until it finds its new spot. Feh.)

Then, of course, you have the music. If the music's supposed to be bad, you don't hire Björk. I've never really been a huge Björk fan, but even before I saw this movie I would have readily agreed that she's one of the most important musicians of the past decade — and after seeing it, I checked out a bit more of her work and Homogenic has jumped to the top of my to-buy list. The songs in this film are no Homogenic, but Björk's otherworldly warble ennobles even the relatively pedestrian material here.

It also occurs to me that, yeah, maybe we're supposed to laugh at the way the colors get so much richer in the musical bits — but are they artificially saturated, or are the "real-life" scenes artificially washed out? The world does have color in it, after all. For that matter, even on a plot level, the "real-life" segments are the stuff of silent melodrama... and while it's true that there are a lot of people in the world who've suffered as badly or worse than Selma has, this point seems to be undermined by casting Björk in the lead role. Not because she can't pull it off — her acting is frankly awesome, and it's easy to believe her when she says it was so emotionally devastating to go through that she'll never act again — but because of how it maps onto the question of fantasy vs. reality. Here's what I mean. This is a movie about a poor blind woman whose life is so horrible that she fantasizes that she is... well, that she's Björk, singing, putting on shows. But in real life — real real life, not the "real life" of the film — Björk IS Björk. Selma is the fiction, created so that the audience can for a couple of hours escape into hell.

Of course, that's not really fair. Not all art is about escapism; very little of what I enjoy is. And clearly Dancer in the Dark is intended to make us think — about lots of things, but for me the key moment comes toward the end, when Selma's would-be suitor shows up and asks what it was all for. Remember, the reason her life was so hard — the reason she had to leave her homeland (which she misses), the reason she worked herself half to death, the reason she couldn't spend any of the money she earned, was that she needed to get her son an operation. And she knew before he was conceived that this would be the case. So why on earth did she have him? Her answer: "I wanted to hold a little baby," she murmurs.

Some reviewers have interpreted Dancer in the Dark as an exercise in torturing a character for this selfishness. Is it selfishness? It seems pretty clear to me that the congenital eye defect is just a metaphor; the selfishness with which the film is really concerned is simply that of bringing a child into a world as fundamentally fucked up as ours. Not to mention giving the world another mouth to feed: after all, "We're having a baby!" translates to "Hey, you know that limited pool of resources we all have to share? Well another eighty years' worth is going into MY gene pool, buddy!" This isn't necessarily the first thing you think of when you hear a couple's having their first kid — but it might be when you hear they're having their fifth, and it's interesting to follow the logic of being quietly appalled by this sort of tragedy of the commons back to the question of, "Well, is even having one justifiable?" But if that's the question Dancer is supposed to be provoking, it's certainly going about it in an oblique way. I suspect this issue may not be what I was supposed to be looking at. But then, the camera often seemed pretty confused as well.

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