Björk plays Selma Jeková, a Czech immigrant to the U.S. State of Washington in The '60s. She lives with her son, Gene Jeek (Vladica Kostic) in a trailer home owned by town policeman Bill Houston (David Morse) and his wife Linda Houston (Cara Seymour), and works at a factory. Selma loves Hollywood musicals, and sees them at the cinema with her friend, Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). She is auditioning for the part of Maria in an adaptation (because there is no such word as "adaption") of The Sound of Music, and throughout the film, she slips into daydreams in which she imagines herself and others around her spontaneously enacting musical numbers. Co-worker Jeff (Peter Stormare) pursues her romantically, to no avail.
Unbeknownst to everyone, Selma is gradually going blind from a hereditary disease, and Gene will eventually suffer the same fate unless she secures an operation for him, hence she has moved to the US. All the money she has been making at the factory is saved as a fund for the operation. When Bill steals said fund so as to hide the fact that he is broke from his wife one day, things do not end well...
Troper in the dark:
- Adam Smith Hates Your Guts: The lawyer presents Selma with a Morton's Fork: He has proof that she's innocent, but he'll only take the case if she pays him the money that Bill stole.
- Something of a Take That! against capitalism (lampshaded by the prosecutor).
- Bittersweet Ending: Selma is executed for murdering Bill, but just before she's hanged, she learns that the operation for Gene which she spent the money that had been raised for a lawyer who could avert the sentence was succesful.
- Camera Tricks: Alternates between Dogme 95 using blurry handheld cameras to make you feel like you too are going blind, and 100 stationary cameras simultaneously shooting an uninterrupted Long Take in Technicolor, with singing and dancing (for the scenes in Selma's head).
- Death Row: Selma, who is wrongly convicted and given the death penalty, is deeply distraught as she awaits her death. Although a sympathetic female prison guard named Brenda tries to comfort her, the other state officials show no feelings and are eager to see her executed. On her way to the gallows, Selma goes to hug the other men on death row while singing to them. However, on the gallows, she becomes terrified, so that she must be strapped to a collapse board. Her hysteria when the hood is placed over her face delays the execution.
- Dogme 95: Like Breaking the Waves, it's often mistaken for this, though it does adhere to some Dogme rules while ignoring others.
- Everything Is an Instrument: The song "Cvalda", in which the rhythm is inspired by the noise of factory machinery.
- Genre Deconstruction: A very acidic one, of the "integrated" musical that had characters break out into song in ways that were "integrated" into the narrative as plot points, usually in a manner that resolved the immediate conflict. Here, the songs are all in Selma's head, and as such they do NOT resolve things. It's brought to the point of (dark) parody when, right after killing Bill, her musical number has him getting up and joining in! One gets the feeling von Trier's implying that Selma's love of musicals has stuck her head in the clouds, reassuring herself that "everything will work out" (like in a musical).
- I Gave My Word: Selma's reason for not Just Eating Gilligan (see below).
- Killed Mid-Sentence: Selma herself, or mid-song, as it were.
- Just Eat Gilligan: If Selma had just revealed Bill's secret (and therefore tell why she had to kill him), she could've been proven innocent.
- Just Train Wrong: This locomotive◊ appears in a scene in the movie. The Great Northern never used NOHAB engines, which were built for the European market, but the film-makers thought it was the closest they could get to an American-style diesel.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Come on, Selma! Just 100 steps!Wife: You have to hurry up / I called the police! / They're just down the roadSelma: (cheerfully) They've come for me! / Why should I run...Wife: They'll take your money! / Run for your boySelma: (cheerfully) Silly Selma / you're the one to blame.—Smith & Wesson
- Manchild: Selma (some critics have speculated that she or Jeff may have a slight mental handicap)
- Meaningful Echo / Motif: Whenever Selma becomes frightened or frustrated, incidental sounds (pencils scratching, machines grinding) repeat in her head, and she makes a song out of that. Subverted when she is placed in a noiseless isolation cell.
- Meaningful Name: Possibly Gene. The fact that he has his mother's genes and therefore his mother's sickness is vital to the plot and Selma's motivations. Selma is derived from Arabic meaning "peace", which could indicate that she is ultimately at peace with her decision. Bill could be a reference to his financial troubles. And Linda means "pretty" in Spanish, which could be a reference to her looks that make her irresistible to Bill.
- It's not unlikely that Selma named her son after Gene Kelly.
- Mood Whiplash: All the musical numbers. Some of them hard cut to something terrible happening to Selma while she was daydreaming the music.
- Musical: The best musical about an innocent, impoverished woman slowly succumbing to illness and despair since RENT or Les Misérables! And it's shot with handheld realism.
- The Oner: The musical numbers are a special case, using up to 100 stationary cameras in Technicolor, then cutting between all the footage generated. The rest of the movie is filmed with blurry handheld cameras in the style of Dogme 95, to show how Selma is going blind and the musical numbers are what she sees in her head. The result is fascinating because you can tell all the footage of singing/dancing was taken from multiple odd angles of one single take. (under a desk, atop a railway car, etc.)
- Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: English actress Cara Seymour's North American English starts sounding suspiciously Scots-Irish when she gets impassioned in one scene. Possibly averted however by Swedish actor Peter Stormare who, while playing the implicitly American Jeff, doesn't bother speaking with anything but a Swedish accent.
- Soap Opera Disease: It is never identified exactly what it is that Selma and Gene have.
- Struggling Single Mother: Selma lives alone with her son in a trailer park and puts all her effort into working a sucky job at a factory for his sake, saving money so he can get the treatment that'll stop him from inheriting her progressive blindness.
- Thematic Series: Part of the Golden Hearts Trilogy along with Breaking The Waves and The Idiots which are not linked by narrative but by themes.
- Visual Pun: Selma lying on birch logs in the "Scatterheart" sequence. In Swedish, Icelandic, and Faroese, "Björk" means "birch".