Dancer in the Dark, (2000) directed and written by Lars von Trier, forms the final part of the ‘Golden Heart Trilogy‘; (following Breaking the Waves, 1996, and The Idiots, 1998) essentially all three films depict a character retaining their purity of heart, against all odds. The trilogy is also closely associated with an avant-garde filmmaking movement, Dogme 95.
The story of Dancer in the Dark centers on the life of a Czech immigrant, (set in Washington, around 1964) Selma Ježková, who works relentless, long hours at a factory to save up money—slowly but surely she is going blind due to a hereditary eye disease, from which her son, Gene, suffers as well. Selma keeps her disintegrating eyesight a secret and lives life to the fullest; despite the dreary living conditions she radiates energy and optimism, living in a world of her own. With her friend Kathy, Selma goes to the cinema as often as she can afford it; she is passionate about musicals.
Selma: You know when the camera goes really big, and it comes up out of the roof, and you just know that it’s gonna end? I hate that.
In her debut as a lead actress, Björk is truly captivating. As an acclaimed a singer, the role of Selma seems tailor-made for her; the key moments of the story play out as musical numbers, where Björk sings and dances. These scenes are like a glimpse into the imaginative world Selma lives in, where the clangs of the factory or the sound of a passing train can turn into music.
In fact, Björk landed the lead role by chance, having agreed to compose and produce the score of Dancer in the Dark:
Director Lars von Trier eventually asked her to consider playing the role of Selma, convincing her that the only true way to capture the character of Selma was to have the composer of the music play the character.
Though the film contains elements of a musical, the overall tone is heavy; the musical moments a stark contrast to what is happening behind the scenes, so to speak. As a part of the Dogme 95 movement, (initiated by Trier himself and Thomas Vinterberg) the purpose of which was to distill the essence of what cinema is about, Dancer in the Dark presents a minimal approach; stripped of costly special effects and filmed entirely on location, rather than in a studio. While bringing down the walls of traditional filmmaking, it stands alone as a moving and powerful film—influenced rather than representing the ideals of Dogme 95.