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'selma ježková' is a czechoslovakian immigrant, a single mother working in a factory in rural america. her salvation is passion for music, specifically, the all-singing, all-dancing numbers found in classic hollywood musicals. selma harbors a sad secret: she is losing her eyesight and her son 'gene ježek' (vladica kostic) stands to suffer the same fate if she can't put away enough money to secure him an operation. when a desperate neighbor falsely accuses selma of stealing his savings, the drama of her life escalates to a tragic finale. directed by lars von trier and starring icelandic/nordic singer/songwriter/actress björk, catherine deneuve, david morse, cara seymour, peter stormare, siobhan fallon hogan, and joel grey. the soundtrack for the film, released as the album 'selmasongs', was written mainly by björk, but a number of songs featured contributions from the late mark bell, and the lyrics were by von trier and sjón. three songs from rodgers and hammerstein's the sound of music were also used in the film.
the film was shot with a handheld camera, and was somewhat inspired by a dogme 95 look.
'dancer in the dark' premiered at the 2000 cannes film festival to (standing ovations) and controversy, but was nonetheless awarded the palme d'Or, along with the best actress award for björk. the song "i've seen it all", with thom yorke, was nominated for an academy award for best song. the film is set in washington state, in 1964. they live a life of poverty as selma works at a factory with her good friend 'kathy' (catherine deneuve). she rents a trailer home on the property of town policeman bill houston, (david morse) and his wife linda (cara seymour). She is also pursued by the shy but persistent jeff (peter stormare), who also works at the factory.
selma suffers from a degenerative eye condition and because of this is losing her vision. she has been saving up to pay for an operation which will prevent her young son from suffering the same fate. to escape the misery of her daily life, selma accompanies kathy, to the local cinema where together they watch fabulous hollywood musicals (or more accurately, selma listens as cvalda describes them to her, to the annoyance of the other theater patrons, or acts out the dance steps upon selma's hand using her fingers).
In her day-to-day life, when things are too boring or upsetting, selma slips into daydreams or perhaps a trance-like state where she imagines the ordinary circumstances and individuals around her have erupted into elaborate musical theater numbers. These songs use some sort of real-life noise (from factory machines buzzing to the sound of a flag rapping against a flag pole in the wind) as an underlying rhythm. unfortunately, selma slips into one such trance while working at the factory. soon jeff, and cvalda, begin to realize that selma can barely see at all. additionally, bill reveals to selma that his materialistic wife linda spends more than his salary, there is no money left from his inheritance, and he is behind in payments and the bank is going to take his house. he asks selma for a loan, but she declines. he regrets telling selma his secret. to comfort bill, Selma reveals her secret blindness, hoping that together they can keep each other's secret. Bill then hides in the corner of selma's home, knowing she can't see him, and watches as she puts some money in her kitchen tin.
the next day, after having broken her machine the night before through careless error, selma is fired from her job. when she comes home to put her final wages away she finds the tin is empty; she goes next door to report the theft to bill and linda only to hear linda discussing how bill has brought home their safe deposit box to count their savings. linda additionally reveals that bill has "confessed" his affair with selma, and that selma must move out immediately. knowing that bill was broke and that the money he is counting must be hers, she confronts him and attempts to take the money back. he draws a gun on her, and in a struggle he is wounded. linda discovers the two of them and, assuming that selma is attempting to steal the money, runs off to tell the police at bill's command. bill then begs selma to take his life, telling her that this will be the only way she will ever reclaim the money that he stole from her. selma shoots at him several times, but due to her blindness manages to only maim bill further. In the end, she performs a coup de grâce with the safe deposit box. in one of the scenes, selma slips into a trance and imagines that bill's corpse stands up and slow dances with her, urging her to run to freedom. she does, and takes the money to the Institute for the blind to pay for her son's operation before the police can take it from her.
selma is caught and eventually put on trial. It is here that she is pegged as a communist sympathizer and murderess. although she tells as much truth about the situation as she can, she refuses to reveal bill's secret, saying that she had promised not to. additionally, when her claim that the reason she didn't have any money was because she had been sending it to her father in czechoslovakia is proven false, she is convicted and given the death penalty. cvalda and jeff eventually put the pieces of the puzzle together and get back selma's money, using it instead to pay for a trial lawyer who can free her. selma becomes furious and refuses the lawyer, opting to face the death penalty rather than let her son go blind, but she is deeply distraught as she awaits her death. although a sympathetic female prison guard named brenda tries to comfort her, the other state officials show no feelings and are eager to see her executed. brenda encourages selma to walk. on her way to the gallows, selma goes to hug the other men on death row while singing to them. however, on the gallows, she becomes terrified, so that she must be strapped to a collapse board. her hysteria when the hood is placed over her face delays the execution. selma begins crying hysterically and brenda cries with her, but cvalda rushes to inform her that the operation was successful and that gene will see. relieved, selma sings the final song on the gallows with no musical accompaniment, although she is hanged before she finishes. a curtain is then drawn in front of her body, while the missing part of the song shows on the screen: "they say it's the last song/they don't know us, you see/It's only the last song/If we let it be."
In an award winning central role, Björk stars as Selma, a Czech immigrant and a single mother working in a factory in rural America. Her salvation is her passion for music. Specifically, the all-singing, all-dancing routines found in classic Hollywood musicals. But Selma harbours a sad secret: she is losing her eyesight and her 10 year-old son stands to suffer the same fate if she can't put away enough money to secure him an operation. When a desperate neighbour falsely accuses Selma of stealing, the drama of her life escalates to a magnificent and tragic finale.
New Defence Counsel
LARS VON TRIER ON MAKING DANCER IN THE DARK
It sounded so simple, to do a musical. It’s an idea I’d always had. But who knows how to make a musical? I often try to go back to find the fascination I had as a child when I saw musicals on television, the ones with Gene Kelly. They were always very appealing and I thought that maybe I could recreate some of that feeling. I don’t see musicals very often anymore but then, I saw them loads of times. Of course, my parents were communists and they thought that all musicals were American rubbish…
I suppose that musicals are part of the family of melodrama but the ones I saw as a child were never really dangerous. You didn’t cry. Musicals are like operettas; they’re characterized by lightness. As a genre, they don’t demand much of you - almost nothing. The first musicals I saw were very light. Then along came a fantastic one, West Side Story, that was more like a dramatic story.
The difference between an opera and an operetta is that the heavy stuff is in the opera. West Side Story is more of an opera story than, say, Singing in the Rain where Debbie Reynolds’ drama is that she almost loses a career… or does she get a career? Whatever. It’s normally smaller things that happen in a musical. What I wanted to achieve with Dancer in the Dark is that you take things as seriously as you do in an opera. Some years ago, people really cried at operas. I think it’s a skill to be able to find such emotion in something so stylized. I would love to feel that much for someone who’s been killed with a cardboard sword…
I’m not particularly proud of the little tricks I’ve used for the musical numbers in Dancer in the Dark… I like the idea that Selma has these fantasies or this ability to hear music in everyday sounds, but I am not very proud that we didn’t dare to make it cleaner and just allow them to sing for no reason. The problem is that when the music suddenly pours down from the sky, you have a tendency to do like they do in 'The Muppet Show', where everyone looks up to see where all the violins are located. That takes some of the pain and the danger away from the whole thing. I wanted the emotion and I wanted to communicate that emotion so we used this little trick and I hope it works.
This film is put together from two ‘shapes’: the musical scenes and some almost documentary scenes. I thought it would be interesting to put the documentary style up against the musical but I believe that I act from admiration for the way musicals are — I’m not trying to subvert or destroy anything. I’m trying to make it richer by somehow importing true emotion. It is such a beautiful cocktail, emotion and music. Also, I think that to take something like musicals seriously is interesting. Gene Kelly did it to some degree and again, West Side Story did it. Most musicals exist only to entertain but I think they can contain so much more.
The technique of using a hand-held camera and video has been extended to the musical scenes to keep the random effect, a ‘live’ quality. By using a lot of fixed cameras instead of staging a scene for one camera you should be able NOT to control the scene. You put up a lot of cameras and you get some gifts, in the same way you do when you work with a hand-held camera. If you want to bring the qualities of the ‘looser’ way of filmmaking we used in Breaking the Waves and The Idiots to the dance, I think this was the way to start. It’s not perfected in any way; this was kind of a first stab at it but the 100 cameras enabled us to get shots that we wouldn’t have had if we’d used a storyboard, some ‘golden moments’. We actually could have used a lot more cameras — we had 100; we could have used 100 more. What the technique has proved is that it’s a cheap way to achieve relatively high production values. In one scene, we danced for two days using 100 cameras. If we’d had one camera and a storyboard, it would have taken two weeks.
Early on in my career if I had made a musical, I would have made it in a very traditional way with a lot of tracking shots and crane shots; it’s logical, that’s how to make image and music work together. But now, I have a tendency to put down rules for myself so I thought, ‘No, let’s go in the opposite direction and use only fixed cameras.’ The idea was to get more gifts and to have less control. It’s like a transmission or a live performance, not something filmed. If you watch a concert, somebody on a stage singing for example, you get closer because it hasn’t been put together afterwards. Perhaps you can’t see the difference, but you can feel it. In film, people have a tendency not to like direct transmission because they think it’s like television or theatre. But the direction I have moved in for some time is actually more in that line. The best thing would have been if we could have done all of the song and dance numbers live and then lived with the mistakes. Björk had a very good idea in the beginning that the songs should be performed and recorded live but unfortunately we couldn’t pull it off. The logistics of it turned out to be too difficult.
The style of the music is the result of a collision between me and Björk. She’s the one who knows about music and the film is about a woman who likes the same musicals as I liked back then. The biggest problem when you’re making a musical is, of course, to decide what music you’re going to put in and I had absolutely no idea. That’s where Björk came in and I like the music she created very much. Some of it I had to learn to like but I did, very much, and it’s a big part of the film. I couldn’t have asked for a better performer in any way. The day before we started to shoot, I realized there was something I’d forgotten to do and that was to screen test Björk. But she gives an incredible performance and it’s not acted, it’s felt.
This collision between cultures and people and different approaches is what makes films interesting. Catherine Deneuve hired herself — she wrote me a letter and asked if she could have a part and I said, "Of course!" It seemed logical to offer her the part of Björk’s ‘partner’, the other half of this very strange pair and I like them together. Although musicals are an American thing, there are some European ones and I knew the ones Catherine Deneuve starred in. To a degree, I was inspired by some of the scenes in those films.
Dancer in the Dark is set in America because that’s where musicals come from but also because it’s a place I’ve never been to and will probably never visit because I don’t go on airplanes. It’s a kind of mythological country for me. We shot in Sweden and places that could look like America, and that may be more interesting than actually going to America. I’m always reminded of Kafka’s Amerika. He had never been there and in the first pages of the novel, when he sails into the harbor of New York, he describes the Statue of Liberty carrying a big sword…I always thought that was quite poetic.
I think that most people in Denmark find the death penalty very foreign. I’m not saying that Danish people are more humane than others, just that it’s a tradition foreign to Scandinavians. Punishment altogether is illogical but I suppose you have to have punishments if a society is going to work. The death penalty doesn’t seem like a punishment, however, it’s more like revenge and it’s dangerous to allow the state to have anything to do with revenge. I’m deeply against the death penalty. On the other hand, execution scenes are God’s gift to directors. They’re very efficient. If you’re going to be a martyr you have to die…
Selma’s execution is a part of the melodrama, that and her blindness. There wasn’t any blindness in the first script I sent to Björk but then I saw this beautiful cartoon, a Warner Brothers cartoon from the 1930s, extremely cleverly done. A policeman in New York finds a doll and takes it to a woman he is in love with to give to her daughter. The little girl is sitting on the stairs playing with the doll and she drops it. When she goes to pick it up, she taps about on the ground without looking down — that’s all you see and you understand that she’s blind. It’s extremely effective, very refined.
The whole idea is that the little girl has never seen her mother, she’s never seen the city and there are a lot of sounds around her. It’s actually quite close to the story of Dancer in the Dark. The child imagines that the doll comes to life and takes her around to see all these things. She imagines that the sound of the subway is a roller-coaster and there are flowers everywhere which of course isn’t true because it’s actually a slum in New York. And then she imagines that she sees her mother…very melodramatic and very beautiful.
I think that the more I work, the less my own person is involved. If you really work with a character, with an actor, it’s as if you were making a documentary. You don’t design something, you investigate something that is already there. Because it isn’t my person and since it isn’t only about things that happen in my twisted little brain, perhaps the work becomes more accessible.