Acclaimed Danish director Lars von Trier first asked Björk to write and produce the musical score for his next film, Dancer in the Dark, and asked if she could star in the movie as the main character, Selma, since he felt that the only way the role would be convincing is if the composer of the soundtrack would also play Selma. After much convincing, and because she related to the character musically and personally (because Björk is a mother herself), she decided to take the plunge.
The filming began in early 1999, and made its debut at the 53rd Cannes Film Festival.
Recording star Björk is "miraculous" as Selma, a factory worker in rural America and single mother who is losing her eyesight from a hereditary disease. Determined to protect her 10-year old son from the same fate, Selma is saving her money to get him an operation.
In the evenings, Selma escapes into a world where "nothing dreadful ever happens," rehearsing for a production of The Sound of Music with her best friend, Kathy. But when a neighbor betrays her trust, Selma's life spirals out of control. The lines between reality and fantasy blur, and Selma begins to believe that life has actually become a Hollywood musical as she inexorably heads toward the film's unforgettable finale.
Dancer in the Dark is one of the saddest, most depressing films that you'll ever see, so much so that it was emotionally taxing for Björk. After trying so hard to convince Lars to make the movie more upbeat and positive and for the character to be redeemed, but to no avail, it soured her acting experience and almost made her not want to act ever again. After watching this movie, one wouldn't blame her: Dancer in the Dark really is grim, practically sadistic, and just downright cruel, that it also comes to no surprise that the tears that Björk (as Selma) sheds in the movie was a way of letting go of the stress and the pain of it all. And doesn't it ever make you cry with her, not only that, but also mourn for the main character (and Björk herself) long after the film is over. I've watched this movie more times than I can remember or count, and it still has that affect on me. But if you take away the doom and gloom aspect of this movie, there's something undeniably genius about this whole production. There's a whole lot of something special going on here that we seldom see in musicals, and in cinema. At the heart of it all, this movie is a musical, but it's not your ordinary one. No other musical has come before or after Dancer in the Dark, even to this day. It's a one of a kind experience, where everything about it is different: the shaky, documentary-style Dogme 95 cinematography, the setting, the storyline, the characters, and most of all, the music. Sometimes you don't know if you're watching a documentary, or a piece of fiction: the lines blur, and what we're up against is something that is clearly daring, provocative, and downright frightening, sometimes unwatchable. The music isn't just there as a backdrop; it's an extension of Selma, the voice inside her head and outside of her body, matching the moods of not only the mundane and traumatizing events happening on screen, but happening to Selma emotionally. There's also so much irony in the music: it's catchy during the sad moments of the film, again blurring the reality versus the fantasy. And the movie also mocks musicals while also cleverly re-defining the genre. The plot of the story is pretty thin and highly unbelievable, but suspending disbelief does pay off here, and in an odd way, it works almost perfectly. The cast for this movie is superb. Nobody else on the planet could've been Selma but Björk; she embodies that difficult role, conveying exactly the prisons in and outside Selma's mind. The seasoned Catherine Deneuve is also a delight, convincing as Selma's friend and caretaker. Joel Gray makes a cameo. Though as small as it is, is extremely important to the thickening of the story. David Morse is chilling as the neighbor and cop that betrays Selma's trust, and Peter Stormare as Jeff, Selma's love interest, adds even more emotion to an already heart-wrenching story. Nothing is compromised; this is an all-or-nothing affair, and a stark reminder of the remarkable talents of Lars and Björk as innovators of their craft. In a nutshell, Dancer in the Dark is a masterpiece, an envelop-pushing one, a dream and a nightmare, but...it is one heavy film, not for the faint of heart, and it's emotionally draining from start to finish, but I can't even picture this movie being any other way.
The major highlight of this movie is, of course, this one scene that this movie is most famous and remembered for:
"I've Seen It All" was written by Sjón (in collaboration with Björk and Lars of course), and this song only scratches the surface of the equal brilliance of the soundtrack to this film, Selmasongs.
Björk may have hated Lars and the whole process of making the movie, but if there's one thing that
Björk absolutely loved and had no complaints about at all was working on the music. What's so gorgeous about Selmasongs is that it succeeds as a soundtrack and a standalone record. It's very much a Björk album with its pop sensibilities and classical arrangements, but it's very avant-garde and inventive with its use of melodies and beats composed by mundane things like trains and factory machines. Case in point: the second track, "Cvalda," one of the album's star attractions:
It's also very much a Björk album in its ambition, but it's so far from being pretentious. No song takes away from what this record is about: Selma. This album isn't called Selmasongs for nothing; it's all about Selma Ježková, and every song perfectly gets inside not only her head, but her golden heart.
Another case in point: "Scatterheart," one of the album and movie's most tragic moments.
If a tear hasn't fallen yet, it starts here at this point of the movie and album, so heartbreaking!
If there's one song though that completes everything here, it's the last track, "New World":
This song just always gets to me. It moves me. It's one of my many favorite Björk songs.
Honestly, this album/soundtrack is just perfect, and I'm not only saying that because I'm a fan of this talented individual. There's not one bad or weak song on Selmasongs. Every song serves a purpose. Like the human heart and mind, the songs are entirely passionate, emotional, poignant, and dark. It tells Selma's entire story in music without giving any spoilers away, but yet, to get the most out of the emotional intensity of the album, one must see the movie first. On its own, Selmasongs is a masterpiece, but being accompanied with the movie, it's an absolute stunner, a real musical triumph.
The album was released in stores before the movie premiered, which explains why there aren't any spoilers when listening to this, but it also helped that some lyrics were rewritten, and where the vocals of the actors were omitted or replaced. For instance, "Dancer in the Dark" had words sung by Peter Stormare, but was replaced by Radiohead's Thom Yorke for the soundtrack. And "My Favorite Things" and "The Last Song" was omitted from the soundtrack, but remains in the movie. The whole "movie version" of the soundtrack has never been released, but it can be found on YouTube.
Despite all the behind-the-scenes dramas and rifts, Dancer in the Dark would end up paying off at the end for both Lars and Björk.
At the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, the movie was awarded the Palm d'Or, and Björk won for Best Actress for her role:
Selmasongs would be as acclaimed positively as Dancer in the Dark. "I've Seen It All" was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. This was where Björk wore the famous swan dress. She performed the song (an edited/condensed version of it) at the ceremony too:
The film and soundtrack would win and be nominated for plenty more awards too.
And naturally, press covering on this film was pretty heavy, and though none of these are released on DVD (I don't own them), they are pretty interesting to watch to give you a better idea of what it took for everyone involved in this unconventional musical:
And check out this interview between Lars and Björk.
Can you just cut that tension between Lars and Björk with a knife? Talk about awkward!
This blunt animosity and tension may have been uncomfortable and painful to see, and from the movie you can tell just how overwhelming it was for her, but from such an experience, Björk learned. If there's a light from it all, artistically, something magical happened after Dancer in the Dark. Björk understandably left the movie world behind. Once she had the strength after recovering from such an emotionally taxing time with Lars and the whole movie making experience, she'd move on to create another brilliant album, one that is considered (arguably, of course) to be Björk's best album.
And yes, that Swan Dress will make a comeback ;).