Björk on film: Grimm fairytales, whaling missions and Cannes glory

Big-screen Björk: we take a look back over one of the most exciting but underreported aspects of the Icelandic singer’s career – her cinema work.

Björk: Biophilia Live (2014)

When musicians dabble in cinema, things seldom end well. But Björk’s film career, though sparse, is a fascinating companion to her music career. Her films have been utterly eclectic, from low-budget Icelandic fairytales to epic experimenta, from dark musicals to jolly children’s animation. Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) is undoubtedly her best known film, but it’s just the peak of a brave and often richly rewarding body of cinema.

Björk is more experienced in acting than most singers, thanks to the performances she gives in her celebrated, often jaw-dropping music videos (a BUG retrospective at BFI Southbank of her best music vids sold out in hours a few years ago). Compare her delighted, cutesy egg-frying in ‘Venus as a Boy’ to her love-struck bomb-planter in ‘Army of Me’, the zany frenzy of ‘I Miss You’ to the swooningly romantic robot faces in ‘All Is Full of Love’ and you have an artist experienced in conveying a rich range of emotions. She has worked regularly with the greatest video artists, including Chris Cunningham and Dawn Shadforth, and filmmakers best known for their cinema work, such as Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Michel Ocelot. But her relationship with cinema goes much further back.

The Juniper Tree (1990)
Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Her first cinema role was in The Juniper Tree (released in 1990, although it was filmed in 1987). It’s a film I am still waiting to see get rescued from cult obscurity [it’s now been released on Blu-ray], a work which belies its low budget to bestow a haunting, sinister fairytale, based on a Brothers Grimm story. Directed by Nietzchka Keene and filmed on location in Iceland, it’s unforgettably beautiful, with two particularly gorgeous scenes, one by a waterfall, the other featuring Aurora Borealis.

Björk gives an endearing performance as Margit, the guileless protagonist (she was in her early 20s, playing a young, naive adolescent), whose mother has been burnt as a witch. When her sister marries a widower, tragedy and possible reincarnation ensue, while Margit is haunted by strange visions of her mother. It’s a one-of-a-kind work, with some lovely scenes of Björk singing. But it would be over a decade before Björk returned to the big screen, in the film for which she will always be remembered.

The many savage reviews that greeted Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark – and Björk’s performance as Selma, a woman who is going blind and is desperate to save up money to pay for an operation to spare her son the same fate – now seem downright bizarre and needlessly nasty. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote: “screen acting doesn’t get much more dire than this”. In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson wrote of wishing to break her character’s neck. Few performances have been as polarising, as Björk also received many favourable responses – she was nominated for a Golden Globe for her acting, and won the best actress award at Cannes (where the film also took the Palme d’Or, in one of the most controversial decisions in the festival’s history).

Critics be damned, it’s an incredible performance. At the start of the film, Björk’s Selma radiates decency and kindness. Although she is made a victim by the cruel, racist people around her (her character is Czech, and despised for her assumed communist sympathies), Selma is no passive waif. She is funny and fun – when she laughs, you want to laugh back. In the fantasy music numbers, Björk draws upon her music video performances and delivers some show-stoppers with pure joy (recalling, in particular, the dance number for ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, one of her weaker singles but blessed with a marvellous video).

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

But it’s in the serious, dramatic moments that Björk excels. You forget you are watching a performance – it’s raw, upsetting and utterly human. The hysterical scene where Selma kills the policeman who has stolen her money is a huge challenge for any actor. Literally blindly shooting at him, she eventually finishes the job by crushing his head with a safety deposit box. In the wrong hands, it could be too melodramatic, even unintentionally funny, but Björk perfectly captures the madness of the moment. And then there’s the final 20 minutes – no spoiler here, but it’s difficult to watch, as Björk draws on emotions beyond most actors. It’s an amazing achievement.

The artistic differences between Björk and von Trier are well documented. Björk vowed never to act again (although she later clarified that she had never been interested in an acting career in the first place). Luckily, she was coaxed back to the big screen through an even more visionary piece of cinema.

Drawing Restraint 9 (2005)

Björk’s relationship with artist Matthew Barney (the father of her daughter) lasted for 13 years – the harrowing break-up was the subject of Björk’s last album, Vulnicura. They collaborated together artistically only once. Drawing Restraint 9 (2005), an epic feature that formed part of Barney’s mammoth Drawing Restraint project (there are 18 other parts of Drawing Restraint, represented through various media, including videos, sculptures and drawings). In the film, Björk plays the character of ‘Occidental Guest’, one half of a couple (the other is played by Barney) who get on a Japanese whaling ship, fall in love and mutate, in the utterly unique finale, into sea creatures – a transformation that involves cutting at each other’s flesh and devouring it. Plot synopses are difficult for experimenta at the best of times, but words can’t do justice to the visual sweep of Barney’s sensory film.

Björk barely speaks in Drawing Restraint 9 – she is there as part of the art rather than the focus of it. Many of the scenes in which she appears are unforgettably striking – in a beautiful composition we see her taking a bath among a floating pile of lemons, followed by a sequence of her being prepared, Edo-style, with shaved eyebrows and blackened teeth. And then there’s the final copulation, as savage and unnerving as it is erotic. But Björk is far more than a mere muse (a term I loathe, as it is often used to mystify and reduce the collaborations of women working alongside men in art). For Björk’s greatest contribution is to the extraordinary soundtrack, some of which she sings, all of which she composes (sometimes with Barney). It’s a perfect marriage of film and music, and an ethereal experience everyone should witness at least once, ideally on the big screen.

Drawing Restraint 9 (2005)

Drawing Restraint 9 marks the end of her acting career so far [she returned in The Northman in 2022], unless you count the voice she contributed to the title character in kids’ animation Anna and the Moods (2007). But in 2010 she embarked on a multi-media project of her own. Biophilia comprises an album, a series of apps and live performances, workshops for children, an interactive website and a stunning concert film, Björk: Biophilia Live (2014), which screened at the BFI London Film Festival followed by a short cinema run. Filmed at London’s Alexandra Palace and directed by Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy) and BAFTA-winning editor Nick Fenton, this is a thrilling document of the landmark show. It’s a hugely impressive achievement, but I hope it isn’t her swan-song in the medium. As her previous films show, cinema has been one of her greatest collaborators.

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