Forty whole minutes pass before Dancer In The Dark asserts its aspirations to the grand MGM musical tradition. Up until that point, Lars von Trier’s prizewinning melodrama has operated in a mode of spartan neorealism, unfurling the decidedly non-musical story of Selma (Icelandic pop star Björk), a Czech immigrant slowly losing her eyesight in the small-town America of the 1960s. But then comes the first intrusion of song and dance. In the factory where Selma works, the grind of heavy machinery begins to coalesce into a thumping industrial rhythm—a sick beat, unmistakably. And then the factory floor is a dance floor, the movements of Selma’s coworkers shifting into a quasi-synchronized routine, as Björk’s singular voice rises on the soundtrack and the yearning “Cvalda” materializes in full. Selma, who loves old Hollywood musicals, is suddenly starring in one—or, at least, in the approximation of one she’s created in her mind, from the drab foundation of her surroundings and on harsh, flat early digital video instead of in Technicolor.
Oh, to have experienced this sudden genre pivot fresh, with no foreknowledge of its arrival. By the time Dancer In The Dark hit American screens in the fall of 2000, its reputation as “the Lars von Trier musical” preceded it. Perhaps audiences at the Cannes Film Festival also had an inkling of what was to come; it had been highly publicized that the Danish provocateur behind Breaking The Waves and The Idiots had hired Björk to both headline and compose original songs for his latest dramatic experiment. But that was about all anyone knew when the film premiered on May 17, 2000, roughly 24 hours after von Trier finished his final cut. Those in attendance got to experience Dancer In The Dark—and its belated transformation into a low-fi throwback to the heyday of Vincente Minnelli—with very few preconceptions. Which, of course, is one of the main benefits of attending the Cannes Film Festival: the ability to go into a movie almost completely unknowing.
Another, more obvious allure of the fest is the possibility of seeing a bunch of great films, period. And, by that metric, 2000 might be the greatest Cannes of them all. Dancer In The Dark, which would take home the festival’s top prize—the prestigious Palme d’Or—bested some truly stiff competition: In The Mood For Love, Code Unknown, Songs From The Second Floor, Esther Kahn, Yi Yi, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? all debuted on the Croisette that May. Outside the official competition, moviegoers got their first look at Ang Lee’s future international blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, at Darren Aronofsky’s glorified (but gloriously stylized) D.A.R.E. campaign Requiem For A Dream, and at the lovely Agnès Varda documentary The Gleaners And I. Directors’ Fortnight—which takes place in Cannes during Cannes every year—boasted the premiere of Béla Tarr’s astonishing Werckmeister Harmonies, while fellow sidebar festival Critics’ Week nabbed the first and arguably still best movie by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Amores Perros. It was the kind of Cannes you dream about: a fortnight of wall-to-wall milestones, triumphs, and masterpieces.
In a year with so many major works, maybe it’s audacity that makes the difference. For that, one can always count on von Trier. By 2000, he was not just a staple of Cannes but one of the festival’s most reliable controversy magnets, both for the films themselves (The Idiots, about a group of troublemakers pretending to have developmental disabilities, drummed up some outrage two years earlier) and for making off-color remarks at post-screening press conferences (a habit that finally got him banned, albeit temporarily, when he half-joked about empathizing with Hitler in 2011). Von Trier’s carefully cultivated “bad boy” reputation made Dancer In The Dark the hottest ticket of the festival. Critics were divided on the movie—its Palme win reportedly provoked its share of cheers and boos—and remained so when it made its way to American theaters in the fall. Raves sat alongside pans, sometimes literally: Entertainment Weekly, for example, ran two reviews, one proclaiming it among the best of the year and the other denouncing it as a “crock.”
Perhaps it was a bit of both. There’s little denying that Dancer In The Dark, like so much of von Trier’s work, is as much stunt as movie—a bomb-throwing experiment high on its own conceptual daring. It was his first film shot entirely in English, and his first set, though definitely not made, in the States. (As some of von Trier’s detractors relish pointing out, he’s never been to America, as if one needs to set foot in this country to get a sense of its values and history and failings.) Despite the veneer of naturalism conferred by the performances and handheld aesthetic, the film’s Washington State backdrop is basically the idea of America circa the 1960s, though it wasn’t until the films that followed that von Trier began more explicitly critiquing our national character.
Selma, who’s been cast in a local production of The Sound Of Music, spends most of her time at the factory; she’s saving up for an operation for her young son (Vladica Kostic), who’s doomed to suffer from the same genetic illness dimming his mother’s vision. Around her, von Trier builds an ensemble of townsfolk, many caught between archetype and fully fleshed character: the kind-hearted stiff (Peter Stormare) devoted to Selma, even though she won’t date him; the tragically weak cop (David Morse) whose financial woes eventually envelop our heroine; the merciless district attorney (Željko Ivanek) who seems to embody the cruel indifference of the legal system. The most prominent (and improbable) of these supporting figures is Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), Selma’s tough but empathetic coworker and the most regally French factory worker to ever settle down in some rustic corner of the Pacific Northwest. Deneuve, of course, is partly on hand for the echoes of two small-scale musical classics—including a past Palme winner—her presence provides.
Not that there’s ever been a musical with numbers quite like those in Dancer In The Dark, all built around Björk’s eccentric, sweeping tunes, which she’d release as the sort-of soundtrack album Selmasongs. (One of them, the touching duet of surrender “I’ve Seen It All,” was nominated for an Oscar.) Von Trier famously shot many of these sequences with upwards of 100 cameras filming simultaneously, and then cut them into a frenetic Michael Bay collage of movement and action—a choice that feels more like the director experimenting for experimentation’s sake than finding a coherent way to express the movie playing in Selma’s head. That said, there’s still something affecting about the scenes, which suggest that Selma is cobbling together a musical from the raw materials of her life. There’s no snide irony in the discrepancy between her circumstances and the sunniness of her fantasies: Von Trier sincerely believes in the coping mechanism she’s found in Hollywood spectacle.
The film’s power really derives from its lead performance, which won the Best Actress prize at the festival, to much less dispute. Björk, who had little acting experience (she made one film before and one after), has the radiant expressiveness of a silent film star, but also a total lack of affectation. Like the movie itself, she seems to exist at the intersection of real and unreal; when Selma disappears into her head, she becomes a star without shedding the character’s small, eccentric humanity. Dancer In The Dark is a portrait of pure selflessness. That Selma can exist as both an impossible ideal—doomed to be destroyed for her innocence—and an actual character is a testament to Björk’s uncanny performance. And it fits into von Trier’s fruitful strategy of never abstracting the emotions in his films, even when the plots themselves take on the shape of metaphor or allegory. Whatever Selma may represent, there’s nothing artificial about the agony and ecstasy of her final scenes.
Whether it was worth what von Trier put her through is another matter. Dancer In The Dark hit Cannes heavy with rumors of a toxic on-set relationship; though the two appeared hand-in-hand on the red carpet, Björk skipped the press conference. Headlines at the time sold a classic clash of egos: the infamously demanding director butting heads with a superstar diva who wasn’t used to the pressures of a film shoot. Von Trier cultivated this version of events in interviews, remarking that “Björk is not an actor, which was a surprise to me because she seemed so professional. And that is what is so good about the thing, is that she’s not acting anything in this film, she is feeling it. Which is incredible, but hard on her and hard on everyone.” A few years ago, however, after the #MeToo movement took off, Björk came forward with allegations of misconduct, insisting that von Trier sexually harassed her on set. These accusations gel uncomfortably with his reputation as a filmmaker tough on his actresses. It’s hard not to watch Dancer In The Dark through the lens of her claims and everything we know about the hell of making the film.
To the charges of misogyny leveled at his work, von Trier has insisted that he identifies with his heroines—that they are proxies for him, and that their pain is a fictionalized expression of his own. Certainly, he’s always been obsessed with suffering, even before he started explicitly making movies about his own struggles with depression. Dancer In The Dark, like his earlier Breaking The Waves, is a fable of martyrdom. At Cannes, von Trier wrote a letter begging critics not to spoil the ending. But even those unfamiliar with his work could probably surmise, early on, that Selma’s troubles—as an immigrant, a single mother, a daydreamer in a harsh world—were not likely to improve over two-and-a-half pitiless hours. Her downfall is undeniably contrived; von Trier engineers a tragedy that hinges entirely on Selma’s unwavering capacity for sacrifice, her unimpeachable goodness. If the film packs an emotional wallop, Björk is the one who provides it, investing this persecution story with real feeling.
Years earlier, von Trier coauthored the Dogme 95 manifesto, laying down rigid commandments (no artificial lighting, no special effects, etc.) to which few of the participating filmmakers actually seemed capable of adhering. Though shot on video instead of 35mm—that’s one commandment broken immediately—Dancer seems, at first, to have been made at least in the spirit of the Dogme movement, creating a sense of grimy life-on-the-margins realism in its first act. When those DIY musical sequences do finally arrive, they feel like a jarring interruption in more ways than one: It’s not just Selma rejecting the drab despair of her life—dancing in the dark, as it were—but also von Trier rejecting the kind of movie he seems to be making in that first act. He’d keep reinventing himself from here, beginning with the film he brought to Cannes three years later—another tale of female victimhood in America, with even greater horrors piled on its heroine and a much more exaggerated distancing device. The big difference, though, would lie in the heroine herself: Grace, unlike Selma, won’t just accept life’s cruelties. She finds her own darkness in the dark.
Did it deserve to win? Again, audacity counts for a lot. But in a such a great year for the festival, there were even better choices—like Wong Kar-wai’s exquisitely romantic In The Mood For Love, or Edward Yang’s magnificent Yi Yi, which just topped our list of 2000’s best films.