Mise en scene and Dreams in Dancer in the Dark

A sequence analysis I wrote for my Introduction to Film Studies class (all except half of the first paragraph was written in a single day).

Dancer in the Dark is a film that is indebted to certain traditions. The most readily apparent manifestation of this influence is from the Dogme 95 movement, of which Lars von Trier was a founder. The stipulations of handheld camera movement, no post-synchronized sound, and lack of genre are followed during most of the film, which only enhances the strange, fantastical quality of the music sequences, particularly the musical sequence present in this clip. Though sound and music are of course a key part of this separation, the use of mise en scene is just as vital. Mise en scene is, fundamentally, the way in which the elements in front of the camera are assembled, including composition, cinematography, acting, and sets. Therefore, virtually all of the visual information that is conveyed in the film can be traced back to the concept of mise en scene. The question I will be exploring in this analysis is: Why is mise en scene, in all of its various components, used to depict the dreams and fantasies of Selma in Dancer in the Dark?

Within the first few seconds of the sequence, a break between Selma’s reality and fantasy is established by a sudden and noticeable change in cinematography. As can be seen in the first three seconds, the majority of the film is filmed in a handheld style with a limited and grayish color palate. This is intended to immerse the viewer into the grim reality which Selma faces, and could be interpreted as representing her worsening eyesight. But during the musical sequences, these techniques are discarded for a style that is more befitting a conventional film. The colors are considerably brighter (it is unclear whether this was done through lighting and cinematography or in post-production editing) and over a hundred static cameras are placed around the space in which the musical numbers occur replacing the handheld camera. Even for shots that are close-ups or extreme close-ups, the static nature of the camerawork makes the film less visually immersive compared to the rest of the film. It constitutes a clear shift from the troubled real world in which Selma faces nothing but suffering and struggle to a world of her own dreams. In a way, it bears a strong resemblance to the musicals that Selma enjoys and envisions herself being in, such as The Sound of Music or the musical films that she watches with Kathy, not just in terms of the music but in the exuberant spirit of filmmaking and stylization that both the musicals and these dream sequences share.

Another readily apparent element of this change is depicted through the sequence’s heavy use of camera placements and angles that would be impossible if they were filmed from a handheld perspective. Indeed, the very first dream sequence shot is a very high angle shot that appears to be filmed from the ceiling, a shot that would be routine in a more conventional film but is out of character with the real-world scenes in the film. The next shot is from outside of the window of a two-story house, which is again another conventional but realistically impossible shot. These two shots are utilized more than a few times throughout the sequence, tying the film to the lineage of the film musicals before it. There are even cameras affixed to the Gene’s bicycle, one to the axis of his bicycle and one to what appears to be his handlebar in an approximation of the handheld close-up in its movement, though the camera is clearly placed statically. The shots are also combined with the strong, stylized use of Dutch angles in the camera placements, which is also apparent in many of the closer shots. This use of camera angles is at odd with both musical films and with the preceding musical sequences in the film, which are filmed from relatively straight on angles that render the film in, if not realistic, then aesthetically conventional points of view. Instead, ceiling shots, shots from close to the floor, and even shots from outside the windows are placed at a skewed angle. This could be interpreted as Selma losing control of her fantasy to the violence that has just occurred in the real world.

The composition of the characters and objects is another key element in both the hopeful nature of the dream and the intrusion of reality into Selma’s previously undisturbed fantasy. For the most part, the actors seem to glide through the frame, with very few shots of the actors remaining static. Instead, the actors seem to engage in some sort of strange dance, as they twirl and seem to pose in various positions, only to move again. This can be seen as a clear extension of the musical influence on the film and the nature of the musical number, which is often strongly choreographed. In this film however, the emphasis is less on technical and physical (and musical) prowess and more on the expressive nature of these somewhat clumsy movements. The first indication of the composition contributing to the dreamlike nature of the sequence is the appearance of Bill’s wife, who is filmed through a window at a Dutch angle from a room Selma is not in. The rest of the film sticks for the most part to Selma’s perspective and point of view, or at least that of her immediate environment, but this shot is one of the few that takes place in a setting that takes place where Selma is absent. This is also perhaps the first fantastical image that occurs in this sequence, as she was last seen leaving the house to call the police to have them arrest Selma. Her passivity and body posture instead indicates a certain manner of acceptance of Selma’s actions. Though she does not verbally reassure Selma or even approach her in this clip, her simple inaction is a deliberately unrealistic event that belongs to Selma’s dreams. This is made dramatically clear in Selma’s resurrection of Bill, who holds no ill will towards Selma and even shows remorse for his own actions. They embrace and move as close friends, even closer than they ever were when he was still alive, yet another expression of the fantasy that this sequence takes place in. This is capped off by the appearance of Gene, riding his bicycle in circles while reassuring Selma of her actions, a fact which he should not have any knowledge of in the real world. This action can also be seen as representative of Selma’s ultimate hope throughout the film, which is that Gene would be able to see. He would not be able to ride the bicycle so well if his eyesight was failing, and thus this action is the ultimate representative of Selma’s dreams, of her ultimate goal in life.

It must be said that this sequence is still grounded somewhat in reality, and reminders of the violence that has just occurred are spread throughout the scene. The death of Bill is still acknowledged as a real event through the singing and through the blood on his face, which is made deliberately clear through his cleansing of his face. There are also many red and pink-hued objects throughout the sequence, which serve as a symbolic reminder of the blood that permeates and tinges the fantasy. Finally, there is an extreme close-up of the gun near the beginning of the sequence, presented in a cold and objective perspective, though the fact that Selma and Bill leave the room of the murder could indicate her attempts to reject the murder.

All of these elements are used in the overall mise en scene in order to differentiate this and other sequences like it from the other sequences of the film that take place in reality. It is a representation of the way that Selma sees the world through her escapist fantasies, through her ability to find rhythms in her surroundings, her ability to slip into her dreams of her musical aspirations, and her struggle to celebrate life rather than be consumed by it. It is a world in which she can give in to her hopes and dreams and ignore the grim reality that she is forced to confront in her own passive way. In this particular sequence, her dreams become even more fantastical and important to her, as she is unwilling to accept reality and thus finds solace in the words and arms of the people she has personally affected through her well-intentioned but catastrophic actions. The mise en scene is necessary in this regard, as the sequence is more fantastical to Selma than any other scene up to this point, and as such the stylized aspects of the musical sequences are the most dreamlike and unrealistic of the entire film. Selma has only one place, her dreams, in which to escape, and in the moment when she most needs to escape, her fantasies act as reassurance and relief from reality.