Academic journal article Post Script

"Mum's the Word": The Trial of Genre in Dancer in the Dark

Academic journal article Post Script

"Mum's the Word": The Trial of Genre in Dancer in the Dark

Article excerpt

As soon as the word genre is sounded, as soon as it is heard, as soon as one attempts to conceive it, a limit is drawn. And when a limit is established, norms and interdictions are not far behind....

--Jacques Derrida "The Law of Genre"

In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens.

--Selma Jezkova

A woman with a dark past, once paired (for she has a child), but now alone, stands before a judge and jury. Accused of murder, she can only defend herself successfully by revealing secrets from that past. While the machinery of the Law threatens her very life, she still refuses to answer the prosecution's questions. This is the gist of the trial scene in Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark (2000) and of similar scenes in a host of older films, such as the 1937 feature Confession, and the various cinematic versions of Madame X. The similarities of these works in plot, character, and theme mark them all as maternal melodramas, or what Mary Ann Doane terms "scenarios of separation" (73), wherein a mother sacrifices and suffers for the good of her child. A key difference between Dancer and these other films obviously lies in its mixture of genres as opposed to their relative generic purity. But in that mixture we can find both an explanation for the critical reaction to this film and an effective comment on the shifting nature of generic formulas in contemporary cinema.

Dancer in the Dark has confused many viewers, an effect chalked up to the film's audacious blending of the musical and the maternal melodrama. This is clear in reviews by Kenneth Turan, who labeled the film "that most morose of musicals ... exasperating in its contradictions," by J. Hoberman, who declared "the plot would shame D.W. Griffith," and by Roger Ebert, who called the work a "brave throwback to the fundamentals of cinema--to heroes and villains, noble sacrifices and dastardly betrayals." Both musicals and melodramas are staples of classical Hollywood production, but their apparently conflicting natures--one subscribing to the liberating capacities of music, the other to the limiting conditions of gender--make this film's unorthodox mixture of the two a provocative viewing experience.

This paper will focus on the contest between the musical and melodrama in Dancer, and on the resolution of that struggle in the film's trial scene, attending to the recurring trope of the trial in maternal melodrama. While Selma's moral character as fit mother is scrutinized in this scene, the musical trial is also the climax of the film's interrogation of its own identity as either musical or melodrama. Selma is punished not only for her stubbornness, her conviction that she is right to do what she does for her son, but also for the violations of the "law of genre" her voice and body insert into the maternal melodrama. The film indicts Selma for generic impropriety, trying her in a courtroom scene whose climax is the sentencing of the competing genre to death.

Dancer is set in the year 1964. Selma Jezkova (played by Bjork) is a Czechoslovakian immigrant living in the American northwest. Her eyesight is rapidly failing owing to a congenital condition she has passed on to her son, Gene, and from whose effects she is determined to save him by scraping together the funds necessary for an operation. The drudgery of her working life is relieved only by Selma's love of Hollywood musicals, which inspire the song and dance daydreams that punctuate the narrative. While the increasingly melodramatic events of Selma's "real" life are filmed in drab, washed-out tones reminiscent of neorealism, the musical sequences are drenched in bright colour, reinforcing the contrast between the spiritless quality of Selma's material existence and the vivid nature of her fantasies. The tonal shifts between the melodramatic plot line of the real-world story and the musical numbers contribute to the generic illegibility of the film, treating viewers to bewildering filmic moments suggestive of hope and optimism which make the restoration of the film's present-tense world feel all the more cruel. …

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