It has been a long time since a piece of cinema affected me. it usually happens late at night, when I watch a film alone, possibly at the wrong time in my life (or the right time, depending on how you look at these things), and something strikes a chord. Like when I watched Requiem for a Dream after one of the party binges I used to go on when I was unhappy in my masters and not sure where I was going in life or why, and felt sick with fear for a week. Or when my relationship with a handsome, upstanding, primary school teacher fell apart because I was too emotional, too political, and just too strange and different, to be what he wanted; and I watched The Way We Were and ended up in tears on my mum’s sofa at 3 in the morning. These bursts of emotion usually spring from something I’m already thinking about, a nerve getting touched, but with Dancer in the Dark it was different.
I was recommended the film last summer. When I was still just a barmaid at The Whippet, and we were still figuring things out, and after a Friday shift, Tom, Neil, Kenny and I used to stand on Sicilian avenue with bare arms (and legs, in my case) in the heat, recovering from intensely physical shifts by drinking beer and talking about anything and everything. it was a stupid conversation that started it, Tom and I trying to find a female solo artist that had been more successful than the band she had come from. Neil came out with Bjork, instantly, and Tom then started extolling the virtues of Dancer in the Dark. It’s strange what sticks in your memory, and nearly a year later I finally decided to watch it.
The premise of the film is fairly simple. Set in sixties suburbia; Bjork plays a factory worker from Czechoslovakia who lives with her son, in a trailer on the property of Bill, a local policeman and his wife. She has an overabiding love for musicals, and gradually going blind, finds herself daydreaming in musical reverie as a way to cope, these imaginary numbers gaining in frequency as her plight gets more desperate throughout the film. She’s saving up every penny she earns for an operation to stop her son going blind too, and after a confession from Bill about how he has lost all his money and is afraid his wife will leave him; she shares her secret about her eyesight with him. he uses this knowledge to steal her money, and after Selma loses her job for daydreaming, and because her sight problems have become apparent, she comes home and confronts Bill, who convinces her to kill him to get the money back. There is a trial, and Selma is put on death row to be hanged.
It was an interesting piece of cinema on a lot of levels. The removal of a layer of reality by the interaction with the musical trope puts the viewer in an interesting position. You see what can be said to be the ‘true’ version of events, in which Selma is the sympathetic figure; but at the same time you are constantly confronted with the dramatic irony of knowing how the narrative looks to those not in the luxury of the viewer’s position. The particularly brutal prosecution testimony in court could be easily believable to someone not acquainted with Selma’s situation. And the other characters in the film are not acquainted with it. Throughout, Selma remains cryptic, almost a blank cipher at the centre of the action. It’s not just her eyesight loss that she hides, she is almost Bartleby-the-Scrivener like in her obscurity, for example, upon being asked in court why she killed Bill she merely says ‘Because he asked me to’. She, at other opportunities, such as upon losing her job, or on quitting the local production of The Sound of Music, remains painfully silent, and she completely conceals the act of paying the doctor for her son’s surgery from everyone. The silence at the centre of the events in a film so concerned with sound is both a catalyst for and a lens that enhances the tragedy.
Selma’s silence is not the only thing that sets her apart from traditional musical heroines, all of whom usually vocalize their woes and agonies in striking stereosound. While Selma is in the position of the oppressed and marginalized, Dancer in the Dark interrogates the musical tradition of the heroine’s voice being a medium to express this. Instead of an I Dreamed a Dream style catharsis, The songs are all hopeful and optimistic: on what Selma has seen, on how musicals are always there to catch her when she falls, on how the end is not the end. This creates a contrast far more poignant than if the songs were explicit expressions of pain, fear, and sadness. Selma will not see for much longer, what really ‘catches her’ is the police and the justice system, and the end really is the end, as she is hanged, mid song, and silence prevails. the songs add emphasis to what is already painful viewing, Selma’s denial underscoring the inescapable sadness of her story.
This is Selma’s song upon being confronted by Jeff, a well meaning co-worker who has taken a liking to her, about not being able to see.
I think the thing that really got me about this film was the little moments. I seem, in film as in life, to be obsessed with the small things. I couldn’t help noticing for example, that as Selma takes on more and more piecework putting bobby pins on cards for retail purposes, she also starts using more and more on her hair as she loses track of keeping it neat. Or that upon being gifted a tin of candy, which becomes where she hides her money, she wraps up the remaining sweets and puts them in her son’s schoolbag. All of this contributed, as the story progressed, to how I felt at the end, in the silence, when I was left with all the sadness that had built up. I’m not sure, despite it being a film that would probably reward repeat watching, that I will be able to do so in a hurry. I am still processing the tragedy of it, I’m still moved.
The teller is that coincidentally I saw Tom in the pub the other day (a rare pleasure, he’s not really around these days), and told him I’d seen it, and then fell short, for the rest of the conversation. The pain was still too fresh for me to have words for it. And not because a nerve had been touched, but because someone had created a piece possessed of enough sadness to move me without having to touch one.