Discourses in Music: Volume 5 Number 2 (Fall 2004)

Complicitous Critique: Dancer in the Dark as Postmodern Musical

By Brian McMillan

In the final moments of Lars von Trier’s musical film Dancer in the Dark, Selma Jeskova, a mother unjustly condemned to die, slips into song on the prison scaffold.

This isn’t the last song…It’s the next-to-last song, And that’s all….”1

She gets no further. Before the chorus ends, the floor drops beneath her, the noose tightens around her neck, and Selma’s lifeless body falls slack. For Selma, this is the last song.

Is Dancer in the Dark anti-musical? The brutal contradiction of music and narrative typified by the film’s final moments have led many critics to condemn it as a sordid renunciation of the popular Hollywood genre.2 Yet in making the film, director von Trier protested that he acted “from admiration for the way musicals are – I’m not trying to subvert or destroy anything.”3 Certainly his attempt to incorporate the emotional rawness of melodrama with musical sequences is unorthodox, but a close analysis of the relation of Dancer in the Dark to the musical genre shows a profound debt to and understanding of this American film tradition.

One of the fundamental tensions in the musical genre is the opposition of reality and utopia, most frequently played out in the meeting of narrative and song. As Jane Feuer states in The Hollywood Musical, “The ultimate synthesis of the musical consists in unifying what initially was imaginary with what initially was real. These terms are always relative to each other within a given musical. But in the film’s unfolding, the boundary between real and imaginary may be blurred.”4 Von Trier, on the other hand, argues that “the purpose of a modern musical…[is] to steer away from the artificial.”5 Throughout the film von Trier’s confinement of the music to Selma’s dream sequences apparently maintains the reality/utopia divide. However, one final musical moment – when Selma at last breaks into song at the threshold of death – permanently disrupts this opposition.

In several significant ways, in fact, von Trier intentionally blurs the line between cinematic reality and the imaginary. Through his careful bricolage of the images, his choice of actors, and his construction of the narrative around them, the fundamental interrelatedness of these two states is reinforced. To what effect, ultimately, will be the subject of this paper. Does Selma’s last song confirm the impossibility of music in a sordid reality, or does it represent its long-desired release? In raising these issues, Dancer in the Dark acts as both a deconstruction and a bittersweet homage; it is not anti-musical, but a powerfully postmodern musical.

Central to my working definition of postmodernism – in musical films in particular – is the concept of pleasure. I take two works as my theoretical launchpads: Linda Hutcheon’s The Politics of Postmodernism and an essay by Umberto Eco entitled “Postmodernism, Irony, The Enjoyable.”6 For the sake of space, let one of Eco’s analogies suffice as a definition. Postmodernism is, for Eco, a man who cannot simply exclaim, “I love you madly,” since he knows Barbara Cartland has already written the line. By ironically framing his passionate declaration like this – “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly!” – both he and the woman he loves, if she knowingly accepts the gesture, will “consciously and with pleasure play the game of irony…But both will have succeeded once again in speaking of love.” At once you have both the knowing distance of irony and the honest emotion of love. Thus postmodernism is a rapprochement of sorts to tradition after the antagonism of modernism.

Where does pleasure figure in Dancer in the Dark? Certainly not in its melodramatic plot, which distinguishes this film from most other musicals. Set in 1960’s Washington state, Dancer in the Dark tells the story of Selma, a Czech immigrant, played by Icelandic pop star Björk. Selma works by day in a sink factory and cards bobby pins after hours to save money for the operation that will save her son Gene from an hereditary eye disease. Selma is, herself, practically blind. With the help of her best friend, fellow factory worker Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), she tries to hide this condition from those around her: her employers; her would-be admirer, Jeff (Peter Stormare); and her neighbours, local policeman Bill (David Morse) and Linda (Cara Seymour), from whom she rents a trailer.

At first, Selma’s existence seems meagre but rewarding: through scrimping and saving she will soon have enough money ($2,056.10 stashed in a candy tin) to pay for Gene’s operation. But in a series of calamitous events that stretch the limits of even cinematic credibility (starting with the loss of her job and spiraling down through robbery and murder), Selma ends up on death row. When Kathy tries to have the case reopened, Selma decides not to ‘waste’ the money saved for Gene’s operation on a new defense. Months later and only moments before the hanging, Kathy places Gene’s now redundant glasses in Selma’s hands. His sight is saved and Selma can die in peace.

Music provides the pleasure in Dancer in the Dark. Hollywood musicals are Selma’s escape route from her daily drudgery. Even as a child in Czechoslovakia, she tells Bill, “I used to cheat…I would leave the cinema just after the next-to-last song, and the film would just go on forever. It’s lovely, isn’t it?” Now, in her spare time Selma watches classical musicals (two excerpts from 42nd Street are included in the film) and rehearses for a local production of The Sound of Music, in which she plays the lead, Maria. But these diegetic musical moments, the common excuse for music in a Hollywood musical (typified by the sentiment of Summerstock: “You’ve got a barn, I’ve got the actors: let’s put on a show!”), are not the sources of the primary soundtrack in Dancer in the Dark. Selma confesses another secret to Bill: “I’ve got a little game I play when it goes really hard. When I’m working in the factory and the machines, they make all these rhythms…And I just start dreaming and it all becomes music.”7 In moments of stress or fatigue, Selma picks out a mechanical rhythm – the pounding of factory machines, a skipping record needle, a sketcher’s pencil scratching on paper – and suddenly a musical number materializes in her daydreams.

Given its shocking storyline and the confinement of musical numbers to Selma’s imagination, one may rightly wonder if Dancer in the Dark is, in fact, a musical. Following the precise definition laid out by Rick Altman in The American Film Musical, this film fails on several counts. Too detailed to outline here, Altman’s definition consists of ten defining characteristics divided between two categories: semantic and syntactic. The former represent the building blocks of the genre (e.g., narrative format, romantic coupling [the film fails here], acting style); the latter concerns the larger patterns the semantic elements construct (e.g., dual focus plot, music as “expression of personal or communal joy and signifier of romantic triumph over all limitations”8). More recent critics have, however, found his criteria too structuralist to account fully for recent developments in the genre. Jane Feuer, for example, points to Herbert Ross’s 1981 film, Pennies From Heaven, as just one example that fulfills Altman’s semantic criteria, but develops quite the opposite syntax.9 How then do we categorize Dancer in the Dark? Is it a musical or not? By demanding a happy ending (where the romantic couple are reconciled, tamed, and united in a socially sanctioned ritual), Altman dictates the ideological purpose of a film musical and forecloses its critical – one could even say modernist or postmodernist – possibilities.

Feuer offers an alternative take on the Hollywood musical, one that works with, but also slips around, the barriers of genre. She focuses on the paradoxical capability of these films to be at once highly self-reflexive and staunchly conservative. In the most general way, musicals, she explains, “not only showed you singing and dancing; they were about singing and dancing….”10 But this self-awareness does not invite an audience to maintain critical distance from the genre; rather, it works in conjunction with the musical’s classical narrative structures to heighten the audience’s emotional response to the film. In the end, musicals convince the audience of the importance of singing and dancing. Their strongest argument, Feuer insists, is through pleasure, the pleasure these screen activities provide for their audience. This, for her, is a defining characteristic of any film musical.

As entertainment, the musical is heavily invested in the production of audience pleasure. But even as early as 1977, Richard Dyer, in his pivotal essay “Entertainment and Utopia,” hinted that, although the musical is dedicated to the construction of utopias, their realization is, at best, precarious. “Entertainment,” he writes, “does not…present models of utopian worlds, as in the classical utopias of Sir Thomas More, William Morris, et al. Rather the utopianism is contained in the feelings it embodies. It presents, head on as it were, what utopia would feel like [i.e., pleasure] rather than how it would be organized.”11 The overwhelming effusion of cinematic pleasure, as Dyer demonstrates in his essay, often cannot patch these serious structural weaknesses. Of course, the post-modern wave of academics has further problematized pleasure. In the most recent anthology of musical critiques, Musicals: Hollywood and Beyond (2000), editors Bill Marshall and Robynn Stilwell reiterate how conditional the pleasure of this genre is. “The pleasures of the musical, and the meanings of the utopias of which they form a part, cannot be disentangled from wider debates on consumer society and in particular the transformations wrought by the long postwar boom, 1960s counterculture, and the restructurings and dislocations that followed.”12 On a different though equally post-modern tangent, however, several essays in this anthology reveal subversive sources of pleasure: pleasure not necessarily intended by the makers of musicals or recognized by Altman’s generic definition which derives from the authors’ resistant readings. Peter Kemp, in “How Do You Solve a ‘Problem’ like Maria von Poppins” finds queer empowerment through two subversive film personae of Julie Andrews, Maria von Trapp and Mary Poppins, who disrupt whatever domestic situation they enter. He reminds his reader that, “the independence elements are stronger, more vivid than the climb-down resolutions.”13 Kenneth MacKinnon echoes this belief elsewhere in the same collection of essays, drawing a felicitous parallel that meshes nicely with my interpretation of Dancer in the Dark. Arguing for a resistant reading of Rogers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, he writes, “…what may be memorable about melodrama is not the recuperative end but the dust it raises on the way to the near inevitable, ‘forced’, closure. Similarly, the resolutions of musical narratives are discardable.”14 Dancer in the Dark, both a melodrama and a musical, elicits pleasure from the utopias (Selma’s daydreams) it proposes. The forced closure of the narrative – Selma’s execution – only plays out in a most pessimistic, graphic manner the tension that underlines many musicals: the powerful yearning for a utopian existence counterbalanced by the “poignancy of its unattainability.”15

To the editors of Musicals: Hollywood and Beyond, Dancer in the Dark would certainly qualify as a musical. For the purposes of their anthology, Marshall and Stilwell consider “any film in which music is an integral part of the narrative” to be such a film. Still, as a survey of the contents confirms, the element of pleasure is a constant (how exactly one defines and measures pleasure is a worthy question, but not one I will address in this essay). Let me return then, finally, to Feuer. She uses pleasure to distinguish between modern and modernist musicals. The pure “intellectual pleasure”16 Pennies from Heaven offers her qualifies it as a modernist musical. It does not indulge in nostalgic pleasure unlike the spate of late 80s – therefore ‘modern,’ meaning ‘contemporary’ – teen musicals with which she compares it: Footloose, Dirty Dancing, and Hairspray, for example. Is Dancer in the Dark a musical due to the emotional intensity of its narrative and the central role the music plays in evoking this response? Or does the film’s constant and conscious self-reflexivity overpower its pleasure and thus render it modernist – at one remove from the musical? I believe that the von Trier film is neither traditional nor modernist, but somewhere in between (or beyond?) – more succinctly, postmodern – in its simultaneous indulgence in/creation of pleasure and its maintenance of a critical perspective. As Dancer in the Dark demonstrates, a postmodern musical may both offer and seriously destabilize the experience of pleasure.

In the following section I will interrogate this binary opposition of reality and musical utopia, fundamental to every musical and so clearly employed in Dancer in the Dark. I will explore first how von Trier creates this opposition, both between the narrative and the musical sequences and between the two streams of music, the diegetic (Sound of Music rehearsals) and the non-diegetic (Selma’s daydreams). Then I will show how von Trier blurs the line between the cinematic reality and utopian dreaming. The negotiation between these two poles opens up a critical space which I see as distinctly postmodern. If Dancer in the Dark’s melodramatic narrative detracts from the uninhibited pleasure of the audience, and these other blurring elements hold the promise of utopia breaking out of the daydream, the film is poised to perform a postmodern critique.

Rick Altman notes, “…the world of the film musical begins where reality and the fantasy, rhythmic world of the show merge.”17 As his words suggest, the distinction between reality and fantasy takes concrete form in the opposition of a musical’s narrative reality and its “show” elements. Martin Sutton expands on this concept, explaining, “The musical is essentially a genre that concerns itself with the romantic/rogue imagination and its daily battle with a restraining, ‘realistic,’ social order. This battle grows out of a tension between realistic plot and spectacle/fantasy number.”18 Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark very clearly constructs a similar juxtaposition. The bleakness of Selma’s reality is established for the viewer immediately through visual clues. Her everyday environment is dull and grainy: von Trier purposefully does not enhance the colour quality of his digital video film. Furthermore, the director acts as the only cameraman. Instead of smooth, carefully choreographed, and closely edited film technique, von Trier’s camera jostles back and forth between characters, bouncing unsteadily as he follows them through the story. These techniques exemplify von Trier’s usual aesthetic. His aim, he contends, is to capture a “documentary” feel,19 a looser, improvisatory approach that eschews the seamless, “disguised” constructedness of a typical film narrative.

Contrast this technique with the director’s approach to Selma’s musical fantasies. When she slips into her daydreams, her world is suddenly altered in three significant ways. First, it is infused with colour. Post-production treatment saturates Selma’s drab reality with warm, vibrant tones. This is, of course, an allusion to one of the oldest musical film techniques, one familiar to anyone who has seen The Wizard of Oz.20 In fact, the cinematic association of intense colour with music and fantasy dates even farther back to the 1929 invention of Technicolor, when several films first offered musical sequences specially “emboldened” with red, blue, or green.21 Second, von Trier replaces his single handheld camera with one hundred stationary digital cameras scattered around the set to capture the scene from multiple perspectives, substituting preplanned framed shots for spontaneous, erratic pointing of the camera. Third, the footage of each production number is transferred to high quality film stock, which produces a glossy professional image in stark contrast to the grainy, home video appearance of the non-musical sections. In these three ways von Trier effectively plays upon an opposition that underscores the entire independent film boom of the 1990s: the association of Hollywood with artificiality versus the independent and real. By adopting traditional Hollywood techniques, von Trier boxes music in the realm of the artificial or unreal.

Music poses serious problems to the director’s standard aesthetic. Von Trier normally works with improvisation – the nonmusical sections of Dancer in the Dark were developed through this technique – but the structure and continuity of musical “numbers” cannot accommodate this randomness. The verse-chorus alternation of the music, in some sense, is complicitous with traditional Hollywood narrative in its predictable development; therefore, it demands an equally constructed visual approach. In both his use of colour and camera technique, therefore, von Trier seems to make a fanciful gesture to the Hollywood aesthetic he normally eschews, but which seems so integral to the visual spectacle of musicals.

This divide also appears between the two levels of music in Dancer in the Dark. Unlike many classic Hollywood musicals in which the characters’ numbers “on-” and “offstage” are stylistically undifferentiated,22 von Trier clearly separates the musical efforts of the characters participating in the local production of The Sound of Music from Selma’s private musical fantasies, using the visual effects discussed above. Placing the iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in Selma’s gritty reality seems, at first, the worst violence one could do to it. As von Trier presents it, the show is painfully amateurish: the stage is the size of a postage stamp, the choreography uninspired, the acting stilted, and the singing off-key. This community effort is woefully flawed. On a more theoretical level, von Trier’s treatment of The Sound of Music scenes betrays one of the fundamental myths of the Hollywood musical: the absence of labour in the production of entertainment. Feuer stresses the tendency of musicals to “render as entertainment the work that goes into producing entertainment.”23 Traditionally, a film audience sees a rehearsal suddenly spring flawlessly across the screen. In Dancer in the Dark, on the other hand, the audience never sees a complete performance of any Rodgers and Hammerstein number. At one point, in fact, Selma’s fantasy drowns out Rodgers’ music, and transforms her fellow actors into an exuberant ensemble in her own personal musical.

The combination of von Trier’s visual effects and the contrast of the diegetic music (the Sound of Music excerpts) would then seem doubly to isolate Selma’s own numbers in the realm of fantasy. This, however, proves a misreading of von Trier’s intentions. Consider first von Trier’s visual treatment of these fantasies. While the significant aesthetic shifts discussed above visibly demarcate these musical sequences, there is quite often little or no break in the diegetic action. In the number “In the Musicals, Part I,” when Selma’s imaginary orchestra sweeps in and overwhelms the tinny rehearsal piano playing “Climb Every Mountain,” the locale, characters, and costumes remain unchanged. Selma’s fellow actors are simply absorbed into her new musical number. The result is more an “altered” or “enhanced” reality than a complete escape into fantasy. Von Trier emphasized this point in an interview with New York Times critic David Kehr:

Kehr: So [Selma] remains very much rooted in reality at the same time that she's trying to transcend it.
von Trier: She's actually using these fantasies to change perspective a little bit — but she's still looking at her own reality.24

This fact is repeatedly stressed throughout “In the Musicals: Part I.” Selma’s friend Jeff, befuddled and unmusical in real life, does not participate here either, but sits alone in the audience while the room spins around him. Furthermore, the narrative of the film melts into this number. Spliced among the choreographic images is the entrance of the police seeking Selma for murder. At the climax of song – on the line, “And there is always someone to catch me when I fall” – Selma falls back elegantly into the arms of the waiting officers. Her arrest is transformed into a musical tour de force as fantasy and reality ironically mirror one another.

This simultaneous jostling of reality and artificiality is one mark of postmodernism, and one that can explicate the complex relationship between the two levels of music in Dancer in the Dark. Jane Feuer suggests that classical musicals try to conceal the labour in their production (an illusion which, as I stated above, von Trier unmasks in the Sound of Music rehearsal scenes) and attributes this tendency to the genre’s uneasy status as a mass-produced object masquerading as folk art. She explains:

The Hollywood musical as a genre perceives the gap between producer and consumer, the breakdown of community designated by the very distinction between performer and audience, as a form of cinematic original sin. The musical seeks to bridge the gap by putting up ‘community’ as an ideal concept. In basing its value system on community, the producing and consuming functions severed by the passage of musical entertainment from folk to popular to mass status are rejoined through the genre’s rhetoric. The musical, always reflecting back on itself, tries to compensate for its double whammy of alienation by creating humanistic ‘folk’ relations in the films; these folk relations in turn act to cancel out the economic values and relations associated with mass-produced art. Through such a rhetorical exchange, the creation of folk relations in the films cancels the mass entertainment substance of the films. The Hollywood musical becomes a mass art which aspires to the condition of a folk art, produced and consumed by the same integrated community.25

Dancer in the Dark lays bare this process for criticism in the Sound of Music sequences. At the same time, however, the film attempts to perpetuate this Hollywood myth. In her musical fantasies, Selma becomes the ideal productive consumer: she does not just passively watch musical films or simply try to recreate them; Selma creates her own musicals. In this way, she acts as a model for the audience watching Dancer in the Dark; and yet, as another musical film character, she simply repeats Feuer’s gap between producer and consumer.

Selma’s complicity in this act is reinforced by the utopia of community evoked in her musical creations. For example, the first number, set in the sink factory, expresses her desire to draw the skeptical Kathy into her dream world. Selma’s friend resists its charms – despite the enthusiastic dancing of her coworkers – until she is pulled into the choreography to complete a human “machine.” Having found her place in the “mechanics” of Selma’s fantasy, Kathy is won over and breaks into song. Selma, too, seeks reconciliation with her reality through music. Later, in “Scatterheart,” she begs forgiveness of the man she has unwillingly murdered and of his wife. Selma’s son reassures her with the chorus, “You just did what you had to do.” In the musicals, we are reassured, “there is always someone to catch you when you fall.” In reality, however, the police just want to drag you off to jail.

It is my point that this constant negotiation between reality and utopia, played out most significantly in the alternation of narrative and number, is rich ground for postmodern critique – that is, critique from within the work itself. Using Feuer’s theory of mass art/folk art opposition in Hollywood musicals, I have indicated above how Dancer in the Dark performs this function. In the final section below, I will illustrate the distinctly postmodern spirit of von Trier’s film through a comparison with Jane Feuer’s model of the modernist musical, Herbert Ross’ Pennies from Heaven (1981).

Based on a six-part BBC television series by Dennis Potter, Pennies from Heaven exposes the Hollywood musical as a false panacea. “Music dupes us,” it seems to say. Or, in the words of film critic David Jays, “Music clings to our memories because it lulls our fears, caresses our hopes. It lies to us, and we choose the lies that give most comfort.”26 This is certainly the case of Arthur Parker, the Depression era song salesman played by Steve Martin, around whom the film revolves. Even as he tumbles headfirst from a loveless marriage into an affair, financial ruin, and finally the death sentence for a murder he didn’t commit, he places his faith in the sunny promises of Tin Pan Alley songs.

Feuer points out the several modernist characteristics of Pennies from Heaven. Most noticeably, the characters and their musical expression are completely disconnected from one another. Not only are the songs popular hits from the thirties (and, therefore, not truly the ‘voice’ of the character), they are also sung by the original recording artists who made them famous. Thus, Steve Martin in the course of the film lip synchs to Connie Boswell, Bing Crosby, and Rudy Vallee among others. Feuer links this bizarre musical treatment to Bertolt Brecht’s theory of epic theatre, where, the director insists, “words, music, and setting must become more independent of one another.”27 Pennies from Heaven further imitates the ‘epic’ structure of Brecht’s own work, such as Die Dreigroschenoper, in which the musical numbers are set apart from the narrative context to act as critical commentaries. Second, the film foregrounds modernist intertextuality. In an ironic tribute to the spectacle of Busby Berkeley, Pennies from Heaven often erupts with miles of showgirls, freshfaced cherubs, or elegant gentlemen, dressed to the nines and tap dancing madly. The most ironic sequence, which Feuer brilliantly analyses, actually transports Parker and his mistress (Bernadette Peters) into a sequence from the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film, Follow the Fleet. Though the lovers escape into the utopian world of celluloid, recreating step by step the original choreography, even there the illusion cannot last. Their melancholy dance (to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”) is invaded by a menacing chorus whose canes transform into prison bars. As Feuer points out, the couple is doomed: outside the theatre they are still wanted for murder.

I, however, would like to focus on the final moments of both Dancer in the Dark and Pennies from Heaven, which exemplify the difference between a modernist critique and a postmodern musical. I hope that the disparity between the two films is already obvious. First, von Trier’s film does not attempt the same dislocation of voice and character; in fact, the songs performed by Selma were also composed by the actress Björk, a fact that doubly solidifies the identification of singer with song. Second, the soundtrack is thoroughly of the present and, therefore, not evocative in any way of the period in which the film is set. In other words, the audience cannot be lulled into a comfortable nostalgia (which Pennies from Heaven sets up only to topple). Finally, there are no spectacular set pieces that completely disconnect from the narrative. As I have argued above, von Trier actually is at pains to incorporate the musical sequences into the narrative structure of the film. Unlike Pennies from Heaven, Dancer in the Dark, though aware of the ideological dangers of glossing narrative and number, self-consciously indulges in the pleasure the melding of reality and utopia offers. The finales of these two movies illustrate this difference brilliantly.

The contrast between these two scenes is even more sharply offset by their startling parallels. How often in the musical film repertoire does one find the protagonist charged with murder and standing by the hangman’s noose? Such is the case in these two films. Yet even more significant is Arthur Parker’s and Selma Jeskova’s musical response to their impending demise: each finally finds his/her own voice in the face of death. The effect is equally shocking in both cases. In Pennies from Heaven, it is the first time the audience hears Steve Martin’s singing voice, as he dolefully reprises the title song to a feeble banjo accompaniment. The spectacle of the earlier numbers has been stripped away – no lights, no costumes, no dancing chorus, no orchestra – but his final words are simply the hollow mouthing of meaningless lyrics. What use is the promise of “sunshine and flowers”28 when this gloomy cloud is going to end his life? In Dancer in the Dark, I say that Selma finally finds her voice, because for once she does not need the inspiration of an outside rhythm to initiate her song. Her voice breaks forth from the gallows, unsupported by any orchestra. There is no sudden infusion of colour, no steadying of the camera, no improvement of the film quality. Fully conscious in her darkest moment, Selma sings. This, I believe, signals the radical moment when utopia actually becomes reality, albeit for only a brief moment before she is hanged.

How is this possible? The melding of reality and illusion that Altman dictates must close every musical is necessarily tied up with the successful resolution of the narrative. In Dancer in the Dark, this is not the traditional marriage but the realization of Selma’s single goal: to have her son’s sight restored. When the noose is first placed over her head, Selma collapses, inconsolable. Only when Kathy gives her the glasses her son no longer needs does she regain her calm and unleash her voice. The song is titled “Next to Last Song.” Ironic, perhaps, since it is, for Selma, the last song; but from another perspective, it encapsulates the attitude with which she approaches her death: she will always be that little girl sneaking from the theatre just after the penultimate song. “And the film would just go on forever…” Selma’s dream has become reality.

Pennies from Heaven cannot indulge such a fantasy. In a Brechtian mocking of convention, it “caves in” to the demands of the musical genre. Arthur Parker can’t finish his song and rushes off the scaffold to be joyfully reunited with his lover (Where are the police? Oh well, it’s a musical…). Cue the dancing girls and orchestra, and pan the camera up past the rainbow to the blue sky shimmering above the clouds. The film abandons the logical, tragic ending of its narrative, exposing it in the process as simply an excuse for musical spectacle. Von Trier, on the other hand, extends the experience of Selma’s epiphany. His film also ends with the trademark musical gesture: a pan shot, up from Selma’s body past the prison guards into darkness, then into…what? From the darkness emerges Selma’s “Next to Last Song,” now with new lyrics promising “a new world to see” as the final credits roll. The utopian moment of release into song is extended beyond Selma’s death. It escapes the confines of the melodramatic narrative to send the audience out into a new world. This is the final message of Dancer in the Dark.

Linda Hutcheon in The Politics of Postmodernism contends that postmodern art is both complicitous and critical.29 Such art carves out an arena for critique within the very discipline or genre it perpetuates. This is the case with von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. Though on the surface the film may disrupt the conventions of the musical genre with its melodramatic plot and disorienting stylistic quirks, it is deeply implicated in Hollywood tradition. The film’s critique of the opposition between reality and musical utopias does not trample the dream under the leaden foot of truth. Rather it holds up the promise of truth in the dream. Like Umberto Eco’s postmodern lover, Dancer in the Dark “consciously and with pleasure” tips its hat to the Hollywood musical. It nonetheless succeeds once again in singing of utopias.


Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Arroyo, José. “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Von Trier?” Sight and Sound. Vol. 10, no. 9 (September 2000): 14-16.

Björkman, Stig. “Lars von Trier: A Little Song, a Little Dance, a Little Fucking Great Home Video.” Translated by Bibel, no vol., no. 11 (October 1999): Accessed at September 15, 2001.

Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia.” Genre: The Musical: A Reader. Ed. Rick Altman. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981: 175-189.

Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical. 2nd edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989.

Jay, David. “Blues in the Night.” Sight and Sound. Vol. 10, no. 9 (September 2000): 19-20.

Johnston, Arthur and Johnny Burke. “Pennies from Heaven.” Accessed at December 17, 2001.

Kehr, David. “From the Voice of Dogma Comes the Sound of Music.” Originally published in The New York Times, September 10, 2000: n.p. Accessed at, October 12, 2001.

Kemp, Peter. “How Do You Solve a ‘Problem’ like Maria von Poppins.” Musicals: Hollywood and Beyond. Exeter: Intellect Books, 2000: 55-61.

MacKinnon, Kenneth. “Space and Fantasies of Freedom in the Hollywood Musical.” Musicals: Hollywood and Beyond. Exeter: Intellect Books, 2000: 40-46.

Marshall, Bill and Robynn Stilwell, “Íntroduction.” Musicals: Hollywood and Beyond. Exeter: Intellect Books, 2000: 1-4.

Mordden, Ethan. The Hollywood Musical. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.

Sutton, Martin .“Patterns of Meaning in the Musical.” Genre: The Musical: A Reader. Ed. Rick Altman. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981: 190-196.

Toppman, Lawrence. “Dream of a Dancer.” Review of Dancer in the Dark (Fine Line Features Movie). Originally published in Charlotte Observer, October 6, 2000, n.p. Accessed at October 12, 2001.

von Trier, Lars. Dancer in the Dark. DVD Home video N5199. n. p.: New Line Home Video, 2001.

von Trier, Lars. “Lars von Trier on Making Dancer in the Dark.” Accessed at September 15, 2001.

von Trier, Lars. “The Selmasongs.” (Lyrics to the songs of Dancer in the Dark.) Transcribed by Claudio Dell’Aere. Accessed at December 2, 2001.


1. Lyrics taken from, transcribed by Claudio Dell’Aere, accessed on December 2, 2001.

2. The film fairly evenly split film critics on its success and its position vis-à-vis the musical tradition. Consider this brief summary of the critical response from Lawrence Toppman in “Dream of a Dancer,” Review of Dancer in the Dark (Charlotte Observer, October 6, 2000) Accessed October 12, 2001 at “Critics around the globe have described "Dancer in the Dark" as heartbreaking or mushy, honestly emotional or clumsily manipulative, innovative or irritating in including bizarre songs and dance numbers. Entertainment Weekly magazine took the near-unprecedented step of running side-by-side reviews, one a rave and one a flat dismissal.” Surveying the twenty-five American press reviews listed at the website cited above confirms his summary. In the film amateur magazines even an admirer of von Trier’s aesthetic labeled the film anti-musical. See José Arroyo, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Von Trier?” Sight and Sound, vol. 10, no. 9 (September 2000), 14-16.

3. Lars von Trier, “Lars von Trier on Making Dancer in the Dark,” accessed at, September 15, 2001

4. Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical, 2nd edition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 77.

5. Stig Björkman, “Lars von Trier: A Little Song, a Little Dance, a Little Fucking Great Home Video,” translated by, Bibel, no vol., no. 11 (October 1999), accessed at on September 15, 2001.

6. Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, London: Routledge, 1989. Umberto Eco, “Postmodernism, Irony, The Enjoyable,” in Reflections on “The Name of the Rose”, trans. William Weaver, London: Secker & Warburg, 1985. I wish to thank University of Toronto doctoral student Teresa Magdanz for bringing this essay to my attention.

7. Both quotations are from Lars von Trier, Dancer in the Dark, DVD Home video N5199, New Line Home Video, 2001, scene 7 “Secrets”.

8. Rick Altman, The American Film Musical (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 102-110.

9. Feuer, 129.

10. Feuer, x.

11. Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” Genre: The Musical: A Reader, Rick Altman, ed. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), 177.

12. Bill Marshall and Robynn Stilwell, “Íntroduction,” Musicals: Hollywood and Beyond(Exeter: Intellect Books, 2000), 4.

13. Peter Kemp quoting Richard Dyer in “How Do You Solve a ‘Problem’ like Maria von Poppins,” Musicals: Hollywood and Beyond (Exeter: Intellect Books, 2000), 60.

14. Kenneth MacKinnon, “Space and Fantasies of Freedom in the Hollywood Musical,” Musicals: Hollywood and Beyond (Exeter: Intellect Books, 2000), 45.

15. Ibid., 46.

16. Feuer, xi.

17. Altman (1987), 106.

18. Martin Sutton, “Patterns of Meaning in the Musical,” Genre: The Musical: A Reader, Rick Altman, ed. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), 191.

19. “Lars von Trier on Making Dancer in the Dark,”, accessed on September 15, 2001.

20. In this 1939 film, Depression-era Kansas is shot in black and white and the magical land of Oz in sparkling Technicolor.

21. Ethan Mordden, The Hollywood Musical (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981), 22-23.

22. Think of the exuberant “offstage” musical numbers of Singing in the Rain or Kiss Me Kate.

23. Feuer, 12.

24. David Kehr, “From the Voice of Dogma Comes the Sound of Music,” ( New York Times , September 10, 2000), accessed at, October 12, 2001.

25. Feuer, 3.

26. David Jay, “Blues in the Night,” Sight and Sound , Vol. 10, no. 9 (September 2000), 19.

27. Feuer, 127, quoting Bertolt Brecht, “The Modern Theater is an Epic Theater,” in Brecht on Theater , ed. John Willet (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 38.

28. Lyrics to “Pennies from Heaven” (Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke) found at, accessed December 17, 2001.

29. Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1989), 11.