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Cult Column- Dancer in the Dark

Cw: sexual assault

I saw Dancer in the Dark for the first – and only – time last year. In writing this, I thought about watching it again, but I eventually chose not to. Firstly, because I could remember it so entirely, secondly, because I couldn’t bring myself to go through the harrowing process all over again. 

The critical response to Dancer in the Dark was, to say the least, polarised. At Cannes, the film was awarded the Palme d’Or, with Björk receiving the award for Best Actress. Whilst it appears on lists of the best films of all time, it also appears on lists of the worst. Peter Bradshaw, the film critic at The Guardian, said at the time that it is not just one of the worst films or artworks, but one of the worst things in the history of the world. It is safe to say, Dancer in the Dark is not everyone’s cup of tea. 

Written and directed by the ever-provocative Lars von Trier, Dancer in the Dark stars the Icelandic singer Björk in her first (and last) big acting role. Björk is Selma, a woman who works long hours in a factory, in her spare time rehearsing at a local theatre. As Selma’s vision deteriorates due to a degenerative eye condition, she saves every penny to pay for an operation to cure her son of the same fate. It is in trying to protect these savings that the tragedy of the film takes hold. As Selma awaits her fate, she loses grip on reality and becomes engulfed by her theatrical daydreams. The film becomes a trippy, distressing musical with Selma as its tragic protagonist. 

Dancer in the Dark is a melodrama, a tragedy, and a musical all rolled into one. I imagine that much of the aversion to the film stems from these tonal irregularities, yet for me, this is the source of its magic. Naturalistic dialogue is broken up by musical sequences, which are an escape from the harsh reality of the world for both Selma and the audience alike. Yet it is precisely this unrealistic optimism that Lars von Trier critiques, a futile hope that most American musicals perpetuate. In an age where Netflix churns out serial-killer flics, it is ironic that audiences may be more unsettled by the singing than by the violence. But once you get past the initial mental hurdle, it is a ride worth staying on. 

The film is grounded in its performances. Björk is just wonderful. She is charming, vulnerable and brave; it is beyond question that no-one else could have done this role. The final scene is one of the most distressing, harrowing things I have ever watched – after the film has ended, it leaves you stunned, sitting in the darkness, until finally you are ready to turn on the lights. So immersed was Björk in the role that cast members have even described her performance as feeling, rather than acting. Unfortunately, this seems to have taken its toll on Björk herself, saying in 2001 that the process of making the film was so emotionally taxing that she would never act again. 

Therein lies the question of legacy. The swan dress that Björk wore to the red carpet of the premiere has made more of an imprint in the cultural memory than the film has. Dancer in the Dark has been swept under the red carpet in part due to Björk’s awful allegations that she was repeatedly sexually harassed by Lars von Trier during the making of the film. This raises a debate that has raged in recent years, that of the separation between art and artist. If Björk were to request that people do not watch the film out of respect to her, that would be a different matter. Until that day, I will watch Dancer in the Dark with the view that it is as much her film as it is his. The film is a testament to Björk’s power as an artist, to a performance unlike anything I have ever seen. 

Image: Luvi via Flickr