(Here be spoilers. Abandon all suspense ye who enter here.)
I've shown this movie to my film students every fall for three years now, and every fall I debate long and hard about whether to do it again, but then I do it. Why?
There are pedagogical reasons, for sure--the movie is a great example of an alternative to the classic Hollywood mode of representation. Where Hollywood movies tell us exactly what to think about each character and his/her every action, Dancer in the Dark lets you connect with Selma gradually, or not, as the movie progresses. There are no soft-focus close-ups that help us identify with our leading lady, and if there's one thing almost entirely missing from the movies (even the cheerier musical numbers), it's glamor. These people's lives are not more beautiful than our own.
But the reason that underlies both my decision to show the film and my vows never to show it again is the astonishing and incredible ability of the movie to evoke deep sadness from its audience--even, in many cases, from audiences who are intensely frustrated with the lead character and with the film's sometimes radically implausible plot.
How in the world does a movie that many viewers dislike with some passion also succeed in reducing them to body-wracking sobs? How can we notice ourselves being manipulated (one students said "abused"), feel angry at the manipulation, and still weep audibly in a public exhibition space? What is it about Dancer in the Dark that makes sobbing audiences stagger from the room and desperately phone someone who will incredulously listen to them re-tell the story between their uncontrollable crying jags?
I think what keeps me coming back to Dancer in the Dark as a professor is that it is such a clear example of a movie that is far more than the sum of its parts. We can point to several elements of filmmaking that may contribute to our emotion--the plot (but Moulin Rouge didn't have quite the same impact a couple weeks before, despite the romantic tragedy), the acting (Bjork's performance is polarizing--but most of my students find it unutterably powerful), the pseudo-documentary photography (so many people call this movie "realistic" despite its bald-faced manipulation of anything resembling "reality"), the musical numbers, etc.... But viewers don't fully buy any of this--the same student who lurches away from the movie red-eyed and emotionally drained reports finding the camera work dizzying, the acting other-worldly and impossible to relate to, the musical numbers bizarre and disappointing, and the plot ridiculous. So where does the emotion come from?
I don't know for sure. I can only answer for myself.
I like Bjork, so I came to the movie ready to appreciate it, and knowing little about it. For about 30 minutes, I was unsure what I was seeing. The camera work is so distracted and non-directive. We don't get simple continuity editing routines. We don't get shots and reaction shots. The camera won't stay still and look at a character's face--it's attention is constantly wandering. I found myself desperately longing for the movie to tell me what I'm supposed to think of all this. Is Selma good or just pitiful? Is she a good mother or is she mentally incompetent? Is Bill evil or just desperately insecure? Is Linda a materialistic bitch or a victim of a cruel deception? Is Jeff romantic or pathetic? Should I care about the Selma-Jeff relationship? Do I care that Selma is going blind?
Ah, finally, a point of emotional connection. I can suffer with Selma as she loses her eyesight, and the movie finally gives me some familiar direction in this identification process. It's anxiety-producing to watch Selma operate the heavy equipment that, at best, could be damaged by her inattention and, at worst, could take her arm or head off. And when she finally realizes that her eyesight is fading now, not "sometime this year," the camera shows her heart-breaking inability to ride her bike to work, her laboriousness routine for finding her way home along the train tracks. But, most important, it's after her eyesight begins its rapid decline that we see the first musical number. Almost regardless of content, the shift from narrative register to musical register produces a kind of magical "lift" that intensifies our feelings about Selma and her situation. Shortly after the "Cvalda" number, Selma sings "I've Seen It All," and we can understand that Selma's musical daydreams are in some way the opposite of Don Lockwood's singin' and dancin' in the rain. For Lockwood, his love and joy simply break the containment of the real world and flood out into spectacle. His joy can't be expressed in realistic dialogue or acting, so it is expressed in song and dance. In Singin' in the Rain, the musical numbers advance the plot by representing in delightful form the inexpressibly happy feelings of the characters. In Dancer in the Dark, though (and I can't help notice the parallel syntax of the titles Dancer in the Dark and Singin' in the Rain--I guess it would be too obvious to call it "Dancin' in the Dark"), Selma's musical daydreams are fantasies--not escapes, even, but soul-rending longings for something different, prayers to a distant God that things might be other than they are. So she imagines that her factory job is joyous and fulfilling and that her overly rational, restrained friend Kathy would be freed from her self-imposed constraints. The wishful thinking of her dreams becomes more and more emotionally impactful as the distance between the wish and reality widens. So, perhaps she wishes she could feel stoic about her blindness ("I've Seen It All" sounds like the parent or adult who votes to let the children get into the lifeboats because "I've led a full life, but they have their whole life ahead of them." This may be a sincere sentiment, but it is sentiment all the same. No one hopes to go blind as soon as they've seen enough.).
At some point, her musical dreams seem less playful and wistful and more desperate--perhaps they even suggest that Selma has lost her not-so-firm grasp on reality. The musical numbers come more and more frequently as Selma's need for them becomes more frantic. If the movie followed this rather inevitable course, I guess it would end with Selma in a permanent technicolored fantasy world, a Busby Berkeley number that never ends.
There are two "conflicts" in the film, to use a literary term. One is Selma's battle against Gene's disease, the disease that she feels is her responsibility. She's nowhere near as convinced of her usefulness as a mother as she is of her responsibility for Gene's impending blindness. It's far more important to her, then, that Gene see than that she live. The second conflict, though, is Selma's own inability to find hope in the "real" world. She is not a sad person, but she flees whenever life gets too hard to bear. This will never do--periodic escape from reality is one thing, but permanent abdication of reality is something else altogether.
These two plots are resolved, successfully I might add, and with some considerably closure (I realized this time around that, for all its refusal to be conventional, this movie fulfills many of our expectations for a classic Hollywood narrative), in the final scene of the movie, when Selma is finally to be executed. In one motion, Kathy tells Selma that Gene's operation was successful, that he will see his grandchildren (a desire that Selma unconvincingly dismisses in "I've Seen It All"). Then, as she is led away from Selma, Kathy affirms Selma's own earlier declaration: "You were right. Listen to your heart." And Selma does. As her heartbeat becomes audible on the soundtrack, Selma is able, for the first time, to find music in herself, and to sing her song in the "real" world in which her story has played out. Like so many musicals, Selma's finale resolves the musical register and the narrative register, which had been at odds throughout the film. The plot resolved, Selma's life ends--both abruptly and heart-rendingly.
Von Trier uses every weapon in the arsenal of melodrama and tragedy to hammer the viewer until her defenses are demolished, so it's hard to characterize Dancer in the Dark as either a melodrama or a tragedy. Like a melodrama, the good characters are very pure (many label Selma the "golden heart," a sort of stock character in Von Trier's films), and the bad characters are very bad indeed (Bill steals money from a blind woman, which is just barely better than taking candy from a baby). M.H. Abrams's classic description of the melodramatic narrative applies well to Dancer in the Dark: "The plot revolves around malevolent intrigue and violent action, while credibility both of character and plot is sacrificed for violent effect and emotional opportunism." Check.
At the same time, though Dancer in the Dark embodies many of the characteristics of tragedy. For instance, the movie evokes the pity and fear associated with Aristotle's term, "catharsis." Some viewers, even some of my students, expressed that even in the depth of their grief, they felt a sort of relief or buoyancy, the kind that seems to come from purging these strong emotions. Whether that elation comes from the elimination of repressed emotion or from a sense that the guilty hero is proved innocent because s/he didn't understand his/her actions, Dancer in the Dark seems to succeed in eliciting a cathartic response in many viewers. Moreover, unlike in the melodrama, the tragic hero seems more "successful" if she is a mix of good and evil. Although it would be a stretch to call Selma "evil," she certainly demonstrates a mix of guilt and innocence. Her suffering results from a mistaken act, to which she is led by her tragic flaw (hamartia), which in Selma's case might be her "blindness," which seems physical, emotional, intellectual, and even social. That is, Selma's tragic flaw might be her literal-mindedness (Bill does ask her to kill him, after all), or her single-minded commitment to saving Gene's eyesight.
Of course, Dancer in the Dark is not a classical tragedy--whatever Selma may be, she is not royalty, she is not "better than we are," as the heroes of Greek drama. She's more akin to Willy Loman or the absurd antiheroes of Beckett's work. She is in so many ways ineffectual, even passive at times, helpless and ignominious.
Perhaps I'm no closer to understanding why Dancer in the Dark works for me, or why I keep showing it to my students. But this very ambiguity is perhaps one of my reasons for choosing the film over and over again. It's a rare film that dares to leave its audience so completely disoriented while watching the film and long afterward. Yet, although our thoughts may be confused and unresolvable, our emotions are strangely unified. On some level, we "get" Dancer in the Dark. What's amazing to me is that this movie that so stubbornly resists the most intent scrutiny of the mind seems so completely accessible to the heart.