“This is a musical,” Selma Jeskova, the beleaguered heroine of Dancer in the Dark, played memorably by Icelandic alt-pop star Björk, helpfully informs us during one of the song-and-dance numbers near the end of the film. Last week I wrote about the possibility of LvT playing the melodrama “straight” in Breaking the Waves; Dancer in the Dark seems to me a much better example of what people mean when they call LvT’s films “ironic” and “postmodern,” because it engages much more directly with—and disorientingly unsettles—a set of generic conventions, namely those of the Hollywood musical. “Nothing bad ever happens in a musical,” Selma, herself a die-hard musical buff, muses; while that’s not exactly true, we can certainly contrast The Sound of Music (a bizarre community-theater production of which features Selma in the Julie Andrews role; see above), in which the smiling von Trapp family successfully flees Nazi-occupied Austria, with Dancer in the Dark, in which Selma sings and dances her way to Death Row. Nothing very bad happens to Maria von Trapp; very, very bad things happen to Selma. This contrast is perhaps made clearest when, alone in her cell, Selma tries to cheer herself up with an a capella rendition of “My Favorite Things.” As she sings (and even gets some of the words wrong), vT gives us uncomfortable close-ups of the cinderblock walls and the toilet. It may be a musical, but Rodgers and Hammerstein this ain’t.
Early scenes in which Selma attends theatrical screenings of classics like 42nd Street should also remind us that since the 1930s Hollywood musicals have often promised a particular kind of escapist fantasy that other genres don’t. Depression-era audiences (like Selma, trying to stay above the poverty line) flocked to these movies, perhaps because they are so unself-consciously Utopian; they present, without apology, a flagrantly unrealistic dream world where social problems are stamped out by endless lines of tap-dancing chorus girls. At the same time that vT acknowledges the cultural history of the Hollywood musical, he revises it by giving us dressed-down production numbers set in factories, courtrooms, and prisons and a leading lady whose singing voice hardly sounds like Marni Nixon. “I think she sings funny,” a member of her community-theater troupe complains in the first scene, perhaps speaking for members of the film audience; her director, perhaps speaking for von Trier, replies, “She’s fantastic—what are you talking about?”
Björk herself had already established herself as a cheeky reviser of Hollywood musical conventions. vT reportedly became interested in her after seeing her music video “It’s Oh So Quiet,” a send-up of corny musical-number clichés that ends with a visual nod to Singin’ in the Rain:
Selma observes that in the final numbers of movie musicals “it goes really big, and the camera goes, like, out of the roof, and you just know it’s gonna end.” She’s referring, presumably, to the kinds of high-angle shots that end both “It’s Oh So Quiet” and Singin’ in the Rain’s “Broadway Melody,” or Busby Berkeley’s famous overhead shots of dancers arranged in geometric patterns (see above), in which we get a God’s-eye view of the musical number in all its splendor. It’s telling that Dancer, too, ends with the camera going “out of the roof” in a graceful crane shot—but vT turns the shot literally on its ear, framing the tableau of Selma’s execution from the side rather than from overhead. Unaccompanied by any fanfare, the camera tracks upward to reveal a lone prison guard, shaken by the trauma of Selma’s death, and then out of the roof into darkness.