Dancer in the Dark

Denmark/France/Sweden/Italy/ge 2000

Reviewed by Peter Matthews


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Washington State, 1964. Selma, a Czech immigrant, lives with her son Gene on the property of policeman Bill and his wife Linda. Despite poor eyesight, Selma operates a machine press at a tool company. A fan of musicals, Selma attends drama class, where she is rehearsing for a production of The Sound of Music. One day, Bill confesses to her that the bank will soon repossess his house; Selma reveals she is going blind from a hereditary condition and saving for an operation to rescue Gene's sight. After Selma refuses to loan him money, Bill discovers where she hides her savings.

Helped by her friend Kathy, Selma begins working the night shift, but gets sacked when she breaks the machinery. Selma discovers she has been robbed. Bill admits the crime, only to tell Linda that Selma was attempting to steal his money. When Selma tries to take back her savings, Bill pulls a gun and is mortally wounded in the ensuing struggle; he begs Selma to finish the job, and she batters him to death with a strong box. Selma then visits the doctor to pay for Gene's operation. Soon after, the police arrest her. On trial, Selma claims to have sent the money to her father Oldrich Novy, a musical star in Czechoslovakia. Novy arrives and refutes this. Selma is found guilty and sentenced to death. Her friend Jeff finds out about Gene's operation and gets the case re-opened. But Selma refuses to use the money to pay for the lawyer. In the execution room, Selma sings a song and is hanged.


Björk gives an astonishing performance in Dancer in the Dark, one which deserves all the praise that has been lavished upon it. Let's admit, however, that the role is an easy one, almost guaranteed to reduce us to blubber. In her pop-star incarnation, Björk plays the ethereal sprite whose plaintive voice can break your heart, and it's a down-market version of this persona she embodies here. Dreaming of Hollywood musicals as she works at the tool factory, Selma cuts a poignant figure with her glaring spectacles and frumpy cardigans. Our lumpen heroine, moreover, is going blind while saving for an operation that will rescue her son Gene from the same fate. The situations that writer-director Lars von Trier serves up here might be embarrassingly florid, but the coupling of his manipulative skills and Björk's showy intensity results in a movie with the force of an emotional bulldozer.

From the catcalls the film has received in some quarters, one gathers it's possible to dismiss the whole exercise as meretricious tosh. It's true that set beside a certifiable masterpiece such as Robert Bresson's Mouchette (1966), another tale of an abject waif who goes from bad to worse, Dancer reveals itself as a gleeful tear-jerker. Unlike Bresson, who refuses to enlist facile sympathy for his protagonist, von Trier practically hog-ties us into accepting Selma as the most adorable Raggedy Ann we have seen. Yet there are undeniable pleasures to be gained from submitting to luxuriant emotions you suspect are fake. Even more patently than von Trier's Breaking the Waves, Dancer recalls such weepies as Stella Dallas (1937) or Camille (1936) - pictures where misunderstood women suffered and performed acts of saintly masochism. But those classic melodramas were motivated by a belief in the beauty of distilled pathos. Here, von Trier appears to be up to something more duplicitous.

Indeed, the main difficulty presented by the movie is determining how far it can be taken straight. It's ultimately undecidable whether Dancer is a transcendental experience or just the newest confidence trick from the reigning mountebank of European art cinema. Following Breaking the Waves and The Idiots, the director undergoes mystical self-abnegation with his familiar hair-shirt style, and once again, his film comes across as the most arrant form of self-promotion. The studied home-movie technique (the film was shot, largely handheld, on digital video camcorders) consorts rather weirdly with the kitschy flamboyance of the plot; but instead of naturalising the artifice, it only throws it into bolder relief. The film flicks between endorsing its delirious excess and ironically disavowing it, a double-jointed manoeuvre that puts one in mind of 50s soap king Douglas Sirk. But where Sirk deployed reflexivity for a political critique, von Trier seems interested in flaunting his own conceptual cleverness.

You get the sense that von Trier is using popular culture as so much grist for his mill, especially during the movie's musical sequences. In the very first scene, Selma quavers through a rendition of 'My Favourite Things' while executing a few klutzy dance steps; but her touching ineptitude is transmogrified for periodic fantasy interludes when she and the other characters writhe callisthenically in tight formation. During these sequences, in which Selma's vision is restored and a murdered man comes alive, you can't fail to grasp the idea that musicals comprise a utopian space where suffering is abolished. As an organising conceit, it sounds promising. But, as José Arroyo suggested (S&S, September), the trouble is von Trier seems staggeringly insensitive to the values of film musicals. The director has copped much publicity for marshalling 100 stationary cameras to film the dancers as they charge about, but the stunt makes a hash of Vincent Paterson's choreography. Von Trier also spitefully denies us the joy of watching troupers strut their stuff, notably Cabaret star Joel Grey. Catherine Deneuve, as Selma's friend Kathy, is called upon to tweak our memories of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), but thereafter looks baffled at being given so little to do. Yet despite everything, the musical numbers fulfil their brief and raise the viewer to a pitch of exaltation. The credit must go largely to Björk's plangent score, which adds the precise quality of yearning for release that the movie needs to work. And Dancer does work, for all that's sly about it. The gruesome finale is obscene in the way it rapes the audience's sensibilities but it's also devastating. Von Trier treads a very thin line where fraud can no longer be distinguished from genius.


Lars von Trier
Vibeke Windeløv
Lars von Trier
Director of Photography
Robby Müller
Molly Malene Stensgaard
François Gédigier
Production Designer
Karl Juliusson
Lars von Trier
Sjón Sigurdsson
©Zentropa Entertainments4 Aps/France 3 Cinéma/ Arte France Cinéma/ Trust Film Svenska/ Liberator Productions/ Pain Unlimited
Production Companies
Presented by Zentropa Entertainments 4/Trust Film Svenska/Film i Väst/Liberator Productions in co-production with Pain Unlimited GmbH Filmproduktion/
Cinematograph A/S/What Else? B.V. /Icelandic Film Corporation/Blind Spot Pictures/France 3 Cinéma/Danish
Broadcasting Corporation/Arte France Cinéma/SVT Drama/ Arte/WDR in collaboration with Angel Films A/S/Canal+/
Film Four/Fine Line Features/Filmek/
Constantin Film/Lantia Cinema & Audiovisivi (Leo Pescarolo)/TV 1000/ VPRO Television
(The Netherlands)/ WDR/YLE TV1 with the support of Danish Film Institute (Mikael Olsen)/ Eurimages/Swedish Film Institute (Mats Arehn)/ Norwegian Film Institute (Harry Guttormsen)/Icelandic Film Fund (Thorfinnur Ómarsson)/Finnish Film Foundation (Erkki Astala)/Filmstiftung
Nordrhein-Westfalen GmbH (Dieter Kosslick)/ Foundation for Audiovisual Production, Norway (Elin Erichsen)/ Nederlands Fonds voor de Film (Ryclef Rienstra, Barbara Stronik)/CoBo Fund (Jeanine Haghe)/ Nordic Film and TV-Fund (Dag Alveberg)/ Programme Media de l'Union Européenne
Executive Producer
Peter Aalbæk Jensen
Co-executive Producers
Lars Jönsson
Marianne Slot
Line Producer
Malte Forssell
American Line Producer/ Researcher
2nd Unit:
Tony Grob
Associate Producers
Anja Grafers
Els Vandevorst
Fridrik Thor Fridriksson
Finn Gjerdrum
Torleif Hauge
Tero Kaukomaa
Mogens Glad
Poul Erik Lindeborg
Good Machine
Production Controller
Jon Frederiksen
Production Co-ordinators
Louise Grosell
100 Camera Department:
Charlotte Kirkeby
Anna Malini Ahlberg
2nd Unit:
Cassy Soden
Unit Managers
Anders Barbelo
Joakim Höglund
Location Manager
2nd Unit:
Roger Faires
Lene Irgens
Technical Manager:
Pia Nielsen
Sandrine Lesénéchal
2nd Unit Director
Anders Refn
Assistant Directors
Anders Refn
Caroline Sascha Cogez
2nd Unit:
Damian Payne
Linda Daae
100 Camera Department:
Sedsel Andersen
Avy Kaufman
Joyce Nettles
American Script Consultants
Alex Smith
Andrew Smith
2nd Unit Director of Photography
Eric Kress
Camera Operators
Lars von Trier
100 Camera Department:
Thomas Larsen
Morten Søborg
Anthony Dod Mantle
Claus Sisseck
Jan Weincke
Technical Director
100 Camera Department:
Peter Hjorth
Head of Camera Department
100 Camera Department:
Edvard Friis-Møller
Visual Effects
Hokus Bogus ApS
Shortcut Post Production
Special Effect Model Construction
Joakim Zacho Weylandt
Additional Editors
Anders Refn
Peter Hjorth
Vincent Paterson
Ivan Dudynsky
Art Director
Peter Grant
2nd Unit Set Decorator
Nicola Hewitt
2nd Unit Scenic Artist
Jessica Dodge
Costume Designer
Manon Rasmussen
Sanne Gravfort
Make-up/Special Make-up Effects
Morten Jacobsen
Key Make-up/Hairstylist
2nd Unit:
Michele Ahren
Morten Constantineanu Bak
Valgeir Sigurdsson
Mark Bell
Guy Sigsworth
Music Manager
Scott Rodger
Music Editor
Valgeir Sigurdsson
Vocal Editing
Music Recorder/Mixer
Valgeir Sigurdsson
Celesta Processing
Damian Taylor
Guy Sigsworth
Orchestra Recordist
Geoff Foster
Additional Recordings
Paul Walton
Music Consultants
Greg Rogers
Ray Williams
"Cvalda" - Björk, Catherine Deneuve; "I've Seen It All" - Björk, Peter Stormare; "Smith & Wesson" - Björk, David Morse, Cara Seymour, Edward Ross; "In the Musicals, Part 1", "Next to Last Song", "New World (Overture)" - Björk; "In the Musicals, Part 2" - Björk, Joel Grey; "107 Steps" - Björk, Siobhan Fallon; "Overture"; "My Favorite Things"; "So Long, Farewell"; "Climb Ev'ry Mountain"
Vincent Paterson
Sound Design
Per Streit
Location Sound
Per Streit
Ad Stoop
Supervising Sound Editor
Kristian Eidnes Andersen
Sound Editors
Pétur Einarsson
Anne Jens
Julien Naudin
Bruno Langiano
100 Camera Department:
Tómas Gislason
Stig Günther
Film Extract
42nd Street (1933)
Selma Jezková
Catherine Deneuve
David Morse
Peter Stormare
Joel Grey
Oldrich Novy
Vincent Paterson
Samuel, the director
Cara Seymour
Jean-Marc Barr
Norman, shop foreman
Vladica Kostic
Gene, Selma's son
Siobhan Fallon
Brenda, prison warden
Zeljko Ivanek
Udo Kier
Dr Pokorny
Jens Albinus
Reathel Bean
Mette Berggren
Lars Michael Dinesen
defense attorney
Katrine Falkenberg
Michael Flessas
angry man
John Randolph Jones
Noah Lazarus
officer of the court
Sheldon Litt
Andrew Lucre
clerk of the court
John Martinus
Luke Reilly
new defense council
T.J. Rizzo
Stellan Skarsgård
Sean Michael Smith
person in doorway
Paprika Steen
woman on night shift
Eric Voge
Nick Wolf
man with hood
Timm Zimmermann
Al Agami
Alex Mouro
Alexander Arli
Allan Gyldenkærne
Ami Eklöf-Annell
Ana Christine Broström
Anders Tärneberg
Anders Thorhauge
Anders-Peter Torsleff Hansen
Andrew Lucre
Ann Crosset
Anna David
Anna Norberg
Anna Rosenberg
Annette Lindholm
Anthony Ajoise Olufemi Jacob
Birgitte Skands
Bjørn Åhlander
Bo Westerholm
Bobo Eriksson
Britt Bendixen
Carl Johan de Neergaard
Carol Linda Nielsen
Claus Berenhard
Cristian Valle
Diana G.L. Watson
Ed Hickok
Edvin Karsson
Eli Stålhand
Elin Johansson
Emilie Bendz
Erik Dammann
Erik Drugge
Fredrik Börgesson
Frederik Mondrup
Fernando Molin
Gregor Michaj
Grethe Søndergaard
Hanne Wolsted Olsen
Helen Dohlmann
Helle Bach
Henrik Uldall
Håkan Johnson
Ivan Valencia
Jacob Stage
Jens Johansson
Jens Roed
Jesper Caron
Jesper Kryger Henriksen
Joacim Hedman
Johan Erixzon
Johan Regnell
Johanna Lindholm
John Bruun
John Martinus
Jorge Munoz-Escalante
Julian J. Thomas
Jorgen Fredriksson
Karen Nedergaard
Karoliina Heiskanen
Katarina Winberg
Katharina Duarte
Katrine Falkenberg
Katrine Engberg
Kenneth Fogel
Lars Michael Dinesen
Lasse Eckstrom
Leif Agrer
Lene Løvendahl
Linda Myrberg
Marianne Bengtsson
Marianne Lipka
Matts Hellgren
Mattias Carlsson
Melinda Young Langeland
Meriem Zouane
Miriam Karina Sørensen
Mogens Eggermann
Niclas Bendixen
Niklas Berglind
Niklas Karlsson
Nikolaj Viktor
Nina Brolin Nielsen
Noah Lazarus
Per-Anders Gustafsson
Peter Engberg Jorgensen
Peter Friis Nielsen
Peter Persson
Poul Erik Christensen
Rebekka Lund-Larsen
René Moeglin
Rikke Lylloff Madsen
Rolf Hepp
Sandra Ostermann Cardichon
Sharlene Sheppard
Signe Fabricius
Stefan Clarin
Stig Narger
Susanne Breuning
Svend Christian Bunch-Nielsen
Thea Gambill
Therese Andersson
Therese Graversen
Thomas Agerholm
Thomas Bendixen
Thomas Kirk
Timm Zimmermann
T.J. Rizzo
Tobias Walbom
Tommi Salmela
Tonia Pedersen
Tony Jacob
Warren Crooks
Warren Spears
Film Four Distributors
12,623 feet
140 minutes 16 seconds
Dolby Digital SR
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011