Most soundtrack albums exist completely separate from the movies they’re attached to because the songs selected already have a vital popular character that the movie has borrowed to enhance itself, and this rarely works the other way around. The exception is the old-fashioned musical—and that is what Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark is, sort of. This “sort of” applies in different ways to both the film and Björk’s album, the movie because, instead of simply being a musical, it is self-consciously about musicals, and the record because it appropriates the genre in a somewhat tedious postmodern way. However, both the movie and the album have power that is wholly unique, almost secret, and it comes from the way they play off each other. Specifically it shows up in one astonishingly beautiful song called “I’ve Seen It All,” which makes the CD worthwhile. The song amplifies the meaning of the film, even surpasses it in elucidating Dancer‘s most powerful theme. Yet the song couldn’t really exist without the movie.
Dancer in the Dark is ostensibly about an oppressed factory worker named Selma (played by Björk), who is going blind and who is saving every hard-earned penny to buy an operation for her son in order to save him from this congenital condition. Her money is stolen by a loathsome cop who has pretended to be her friend, who then weirdly (unbelievably, you might say) insists that she shoot him. She complies, then gives the money to the eye surgeon, is betrayed, caught, and executed. Meanwhile, in her fantasies, everyone sings and dances.
Like von Trier’s previous Breaking the Waves, this is the story of transfiguring agony experienced by a childlike innocent. In the earlier film, the heroine’s masochistic sexual sacrifice, supposedly made to save her husband, makes emotional sense because of the intense mystical relationship von Trier built between the two characters. But in Dancer, he has Selma sacrificing herself for her child, and yet the child barely exists. She appears more involved with her imaginary musicals and seems absolutely indifferent to her son’s emotional well-being. Neither the devotion of her friends nor the malevolent selfishness of the cop quite makes sense, at least as they are portrayed. However, in a deeper, stranger sense, Dancer is the more powerful film, its real force being an undercurrent that has only a refracted relationship to the supposed story. That force is derived not from the story of sacrifice, but from an ecstatic spiritual underpinning that is about the transcendence of “character” and “plot.”
This is where von Trier’s genius shows itself: In making music so important in the film, and in choosing a pop singer with a forceful, otherworldly persona to be his star, he seems to understand that his irrational, ecstatic theme is better served by voice and sound than by story. In this light the musical sequences are not just charming, innocent delusions; they are there to show that under the “story” of these lives there is a broader reality in which people who are deadly serious enemies or dear friends are merely playing roles almost for the sake of the soul’s exercise. Further, these roles are in fact flimsy and can be stepped out of for transcendent moments that expose human personality as a mask and human action, whether compassionate or cruel, as a kind of ridiculous theater. (For example, after Selma shoots the cop, he gets up off the floor and they sing together; he understands that she merely, as the lyrics say, did what [she] had to do.) In these terms, Selma is not an innocent, she is a blind “seer” who understands all this through music in a way that the people around her do not. As a story, the movie fails this material because, if it is about the illusion of “character” and “plot” in human life, then paradoxically its own plot and characters need to be highly developed and believable illusions, not hastily constructed cutouts. But “I’ve Seen It All” very nearly redeems this failure, almost making the film and the soundtrack into a hybrid art form, and hinting at a way of creating stories through different media—something like what people used to talk about when CD-ROM first came into existence.
In the movie, the song is sung by Selma and a man with a hopeless crush on her who has realized she is going blind and confronted her with it. He pleads with her to get an operation to restore her sight, and she says she has no need to see anymore. They are on a train track when a train roars by; suddenly they are on the train itself, singing as they speed past domestic tableaux, while rail workers do balletic routines. It is essentially a love song of renunciation and it is unbelievably tender: The man keeps holding up all the things she will miss seeing, and she answers with what she has seen. “You’ve never been to Niagara Falls?” “I’ve seen water—it’s water, that’s all.” It’s about outer abundance—all the great stuff like Niagara—versus the inner abundance that comes from being able to see what’s right before you. The song opens and contracts; smallness becomes bigness, the man’s idea of big becomes small, and then you can’t tell which is which.
On the album, the actor is replaced by Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and he and Björk share the roles so that sometimes it is she who interrogates him. (That makes sense in the song because it doesn’t matter which character is answering or asking, it is the exultant feel of expansion and contraction, of acknowledgment and release.) Without the visual aspect, the song is stripped down and childishly simple, with Seuss-like lyrics and a monotonous industrial backbeat. It is also lush, expansive, emotionally complex. Björk’s voice goes from crumpled, nearly retarded, to wide and powerful as a highway to heaven. Yorke’s voice, sometimes rhetorically sentimental yet giving full honor to the tenderness of sentiment, has never been more beautiful or nuanced. He can also sound like a righteous therapist: When she asks, in the voice of a pinched imp, “What about China? Have you seen the Great Wall?” he answers, “All walls are great if your roof doesn’t fall,” and he seems nearly too pleased with this bit of wisdom. But the stuck-up part is tonally cut with a gentleness that gets fully expressed on that last word, “fall.” When he asks, “Your grandson’s hand as he plays with your hair?” his voice describes sorrow and tenderness in so many shades you can’t parse it. And so she answers with a singsong insouciance that is almost bratty: “To be honest, I really don’t care.” And then the music opens out like sky, full of feeling, and Björk’s voice opens even more, in an electric combination of pain and joy—becausealmost any woman would care. Her joy is that of a person with so little joy in her life that she’s been forced to find it where she can, and both singers understand this: “I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen the dark, I’ve seen the brightness in one little spark.” Yorke and Björk sing this line in a duet, West Side Story style, and together they give reality to lyrics that, taken strictly at face value, could be New Age treacle.
In fact, I’ve quoted the lyrics here mainly to locate particular emotional shifts in the song; it’s the voices and music, not the lyrics, that mark these shifts most effectively. It’s the voices and music that convey the mystery, the transient changeability of human feeling, better than the movie. The song creates a sense of beauty and abundance that the struggling movie characters, with their small lives, would not seem entitled to, yet which they can not only possess through the strength of their inner abundance, but which they can also refuse. Because the song itself is finally a refusal, one that acknowledges the transient beauty of all that it refuses—holding it, and then letting it go with even greater fullness.
It’s also, more simply, a powerful example of what’s populist in “pop”—its gorgeous ordinariness. “I’ve Seen It All” is a passionate evocation of what is great in ordinary people, with their crummy jobs and fantasies, people who are not even supposed to “have a life.” When I interviewed Radiohead some time ago, bassist Ed O’Brien gave me a talking to about how pop songs are just like snapshots meant to be thrown away the next day. That is very true. But in the sense suggested by “I’ve Seen It All,” that is also true of everything human. And I mean that in a good way.