By Tan Ming Hua:

They say it’s the last song.
They don’t know us, you see.
It’s only the last song if we let it be.


About: Dancer In The Dark by Lars von Trier is a Danish musical in 2000. Set in 1964, it illustrates a woman’s honesty, her stubbornness in safeguarding a secret (though betrayed), her drive to protect her son, and her sacrifice. Selma (Björk) travelled to the democratic United States of America from communist Czechoslovakia.

From Mr Tan Bee Thiam’s notes on page 713 of Film History: An Introduction by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell  written by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Lars von Trier is one of the those behind the revolutionary Danish Film Movement Dogma (Dogme 95) where filming was brought back to its origin: hand-held cameras, no filters, no extra features and music should be captured during filming. His first Dogme 95 successful film, The Idiots  Dogme #2), won a critics’ award in the London Film Festival.

Filmed using a hand-held camera, the sudden jump cuts emphasise the reality of the film, and how Selma escapes reality through her fantasies of being in a musical (Margaret Pomeranz). She said: “In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens.”, which sort of implies she’s come to terms with her condition, and her only wish is to save her son.

Screen Shot 2013-06-22 at 10.37.39 PM

The film starts off with a musical rehearsal, focusing mainly on Selma obviously like an onlooker, or usually focuses on the person Selma’s focusing on or looking at. It’s a jumble of long shots, medium shots, close-up shots. In the beginning, when the “head” of the musical, I assume, says “now side to side” and Selma sways from side to side, the camera did so as well. The camera movement during the rehearsal seems to go according to the excitement Selma felt while singing and dancing.

Screen Shot 2013-06-22 at 10.46.08 PM

This extreme long shot should be taken from the point of view of Jeff, her love interest however minute in this film. It could be to portray the anger and frustration inside of her as her son skipped school again. She lets it out by  flailing her arms and saying “Don’t need a dumb… Don’t need a ride.” The lack of colour, with brown washing over all the other colours, shows how dull and mundane Selma’s life is, and how sadness is so much a big part of this film. The scene where Bill confesses that he has no money left to Selma, the camera is shaky, unstable; perhaps relating the emotions Bill is feeling right now: insecure, worried and scared. He’s going to lose everything, his wife and their home. Not entirely sure why he told Selma, maybe he likes her or thinks she’s trustworthy.


During her musical daydreams, the lighting is brighter, sharper and all the colours are shown as they are. This is in contrast with reality, because in real life it’s blurry and of low quality, perhaps mimicking Selma’s eyesight. Whereas, in her musical fantasies, all the terrible things disappear and her vision comes back to her. (Ishana) As Selma puts it, nothing dreadful ever happens in musicals, her daydreams are full of joy. She would rid her mind of any negative thoughts and just dance with the sounds around her, usually exaggerated. It sorts of allows me to calm down at the imminent doom. The funny thing is, and quite cleverly done, is that after her musical fantasies, something terrible would happen.

The camera movement works at a metaphorical level, allowing us to feel visually what Selma is feeling. Like how the camera is only on stable ground in her fantasy world, while in reality, amidst the bobbing handheld camera work, we can see, feel and experience with her how her life is slowly shaking out of control.

In this sense, the static immobility of the ‘100 Cameras’ technique works by direct contrast with the documentary like filming style used in the rest of the film.

During the fantasy sequences, the camera did not move at all, no pans or zooms. During the ‘Cvalda’ number, Lars illustrates how audio-visual space is so actively played with. This scene shows 199 shots with an average shot length of 1.2 seconds. The use of multiple long shots to close-ups with dizzy effects provides little help with spatial cohesion but we seem to understand the space due to the use of sound.

Regardless of the hardships she’s going through, simple-minded Selma made new friends with her pure kindness. In this day and age she would’ve been labelled as “dumb” or “retard” (Roger Ebert), due to the complex society. Even though Kathy seems to be really harsh with words, she really cares a lot for Selma. As spoken in the film, Communism, even until now, is looked upon in disdain after the remnants of World War II. Communism hasn’t been forgiven for dividing Europe and Asia with the “Iron Curtain” and “Bamboo Curtain” respectively. The harsh words thrown at her during the trial, how nobody seems to believe her except her close friends, and the sentence she’s been given only allows it to gain more weight.

Screen Shot 2013-06-22 at 11.37.29 PM

During her stay in the isolation prison, when she was having a chat with Brenda, a sympathetic prison guard, close-ups and extreme close-ups are frequent here. Brenda is shown to be really bitter towards Selma’s sentence since she believes that Selma is too good-natured. Her brows are furrowed, and she tries to comfort Selma. She is worried for her.

During the last scene, the extreme close-up shots on her face with her eyes closed when she was singing as she was about to die gives me the impression that she’s in her own world, and she’s not afraid of anything anymore. The last song she sang Next To The Last Song is a song of love and hope. After Kathy tells Selma that her son, Gene, is outside and that he received the operation, Selma is left with no regrets.

Dear Gene, of course you are here
And now it’s nothing to fear
Oooh, I should have known
Oooh, I was never alone
This isn’t the last song
There is no violin
The choir is so quiet
And noone takes a spin
This is the next to last song
And that’s all, all
Remember what I have said
Remember, wrap up the bread
Do this, do that, make your bed
This isn’t the last song
There is no violin
The choir is quiet
And noone takes a spin
This is the next to last song
And that’s all …

This song speaks directly to Gene, how he gave Selma courage and hope, and last instructions to him. Of course she was cut off from her singing when they pulled the strings and she died. At the ending, the end of the lyrics were shown.

They say it’s the last song. They don’t know us, you see. It’s only the last song if we let it be

The last song she’ll ever sing, as death is upon her. No one else except her close friends know the real story, and no one else will ever know. Selma has been misunderstood, and given the death penalty without any in-depth investigation. Selma did not really die, she still lives on in the hearts of Kathy, Gene and Jeff. It will truly mean death for her if she’s forgotten.

This film was inspired by a book Lars read as a child, Guld Hjerte, (Gold Hear in english). It is a picture book about a little girl who lives in the forest, alone, broke and cold but in the end a mysterious power favors her with wealth and the boy she gave her sweater to turns out to be a prince who marries her for her kind heart.

However, Lars’ copy of the book was missing the ending and as a result, he saw the tale as a simple self-sacrifice with no promise of reward and it has since became an inspiration for him. He has now made three films about female martyrdom, Breaking The Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer In The Dark, which together he calls his ‘Golden heart Trilogy’.

Casting is brilliant too, as Björk delivers such emotion with her voice and her performance is so naked and raw, pouring her soul into this performance, it makes her performance an impressive one which one will never forget.

I listen to my heart.

Bradshaw, P. 2000. Dancer in the dark. [online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2000/sep/15/1 [Accessed: 16 Jun 2013].

Ebert, R. 2000. Dancer In The Dark Movie Review (2000) | Roger Ebert. [online] Available at: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/dancer-in-the-dark-2000 [Accessed: 16 Jun 2013].

Offoffoff.com. n.d.. Untitled. [online] Available at: http://www.offoffoff.com/film/2000/images/dancer.jpg [Accessed: 22 Jun 2013].

Pomeranz, M. 1960. Dancer in the Dark | Review, News, Cast | SBS Film. [online] Available at: http://www.sbs.com.au/films/movie/1749/dancer-in-the-dark [Accessed: 16 Jun 2013].

Upload.wikimedia.org. n.d.. Untitled. [online] Available at: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/26/Dancer_in_the_Dark_movie_poster.jpg [Accessed: 22 Jun 2013].

Ishana. 2011. Film Analysis: Dancer in the Dark. [online] Available at: http://filmcriticishana.blogspot.sg/2011/04/dancer-in-dark.html [Accessed: 18 Jun 2013].

Ming Hua lives life crossing over the lines she drew.


4 thoughts on “It’s only the last song if we let it be.

  1. HEY MH.
    I think you could have focused on how he got influenced on this film and also talked a bit more on it’s cinematography!

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