Czech immigrant Selma Jezkova (Bjork) has moved to the United States in the nineteen-sixties to work so she may save up enough money to give her young son an eye operation. She has a job on a production line in a factory where she has made friends with another immigrant, the French Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) who looks out for her because she recognises the woman is not as adept at taking care of herself as she would like. There's a good reason for that: she has the same eye condition that her son suffers, but cannot afford two operations, thus she will go blind but have the satisfaction she has benefitted her offspring...
After creating controversy with his supposed comedy drama The Idiots, director Lars von Trier returned to the themes of the film he had made before that one, Breaking the Waves. Although these three works were known as his Golden Heart trilogy as they featured innocent women at their centre, Dancer in the Dark had a lot more in common with the Emily Watson-starring, Scottish-set first in the short series as they were both designed to be outright weepies where the audience would be dabbing their eyes and choking back sobs by the point the narratives reached their respective conclusions.
Or was that the idea? Von Trier was so keen to put his leading ladies through the mill, and was so misogynist in his later works, apparently as an affectation to generate the desired outraged reactions in those watching, that there was something uneasy about the punishment doled out to the female characters, as if they were there to be victimised and had invited such treatment by dint of the fact they were innocents in a very harsh society. There was a scene late on where Selma is asked why she had a baby in the first place when she knew it would be born with a serious eye condiition and she is made out not to look sentimental, but extremely selfish as if she had brought about the tragedy on her own head (she should have been asked why she didn't emigrate to a country with nationalised healthcare).
Adding to that uncomfortable quality was the feeling von Trier had seen Björk in so many quirky Michel Gondry videos that he had been irritated beyond belief and sought revenge, therefore put the singer through hell both on screen and off: the shoot was notoriously edgy, with Björk making no secret of how little she was appreciating being turned into a movie star even if she did get to soundtrack the project. In spite of what the publicity said, this was not her debut film as she had starred in Icelandic fantasy The Juniper Tree in the eighties, and in spite of her vow never to appear in a film after this she made an exception for one of her husband's art projects a few years later. This remained her highest profile picture, however, and apparently did indeed have its fans devastated by the finale.
Dancer in the Dark was a musical, but only one von Trier would have created, as while the classic form as Hollywood knew it was bright and colourful with catchy tunes, here the big numbers were only slightly different-looking to the drab, shaky, poor quality video footage of the rest of it, and the choreography was captured in a curiously casual manner, catching bits and pieces of a grander production out of the corner of our eye. Nevertheless, when the tunes started this supplied the highlights, the fantasy sequences illustrating how Selma would like her life to be playing out rather than the misery she is actually living through as she tangles with duplicitous cop David Morse and comes out the worst of it. That the director dragged out Selma's suffering beyond any kind of reason was a mark of how much he relished bullying characters who were blameless, as if to clarify why they should be scourged to show the rest of us up, or more darkly to give us the satisfaction of seeing them brought down to our less saintly level out of simple spite. Von Trier put the blame on America, as was his wont.
Notoriously eccentric Danish writer, director and producer, a graduate of the Danish Film School, who has capitalised on international acclaim and disdain in equal measure. Thrillers Forbrydelsens Element and Epidemic started the ball rolling, with distinctive war drama Europa really setting von Trier up as a talent to watch.
Breaking the Waves, the first in a series of victim stories, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and his fame spread, especially as he had teamed up with three other directors to create the Dogme '95 rules of filmmaking - controversial The Idiots was von Trier's result. Then Dancer in the Dark, a musical starring Bjork, proving he was anything but predictable, and Dogville, a scabrous attack on American small town life.
He was next involved in The Five Obstructions, a documentary which revealed much about his methods. Then, a thematic follow-up to Dogville, slavery drama Manderlay, which was followed by little seen comedy The Boss of It All and most controversially, his relationship goes to hell horror Antichrist. His drama Melancholia won its star Kirsten Dunst Best Actress at Cannes, but he was ordered to leave after a press conference faux pas, then returned with the patience-testing, two part Nymphomaniac. On television, he created the superb horror series The Kingdom, and he frequently casts Udo Kier.