It’s easy to imagine a different world where Bjork could have been a movie star. The music videos she starred in for directors like Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, and Chris Cunningham elevated the format with their unusual narratives and excellent production values, but Bjork’s ethereal screen presence and on-point comic timing gave the high-concept plotlines a human-sized point of entry. The camera loves her unusual, slightly elfin appearance, and her cracked, soaring voice and her ability to experiment in different media could have worked well in feature films.
Though Bjork has shown some promise as an actress, her potential has only played out in a handful of credits over a career spanning four decades. The singer’s interest in exploring a variety of media, combined with a traumatic experience on the set of the star vehicle Dancer in the Dark, has kept her away from the big screen. How has her small-but-powerful filmography reflected the values of her music, and what can we expect from her upcoming role in Robert Eggers’ much-anticipated epic The Northman?
Bjork made her film debut in the 1990 feature The Juniper Tree, an intimate cinematic adaptation of a Grimm fairy tale. The plot reads like the lyrics to a Bjork song: After their mother was stoned for practicing witchcraft, sisters Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir) and Margit (Bjork) leave home. Katla falls in love with the flinty widower Johann (Valdimar Örn Flygenring), but his son Jonas (Geirlaug Sunna Þormar) refuses to accept Katla into the family. Margit and Jonas’s visions of their late mother pull the family apart and leads to tragedy.
Director Nietzchka Keene brings a naturalistic approach to what could have been a more fabulist retelling of this folk tale. She frequently shoots the cast in wide shots against the rolling hills and craggy seascapes of rural Iceland, grounding them in a world both mythic and recognizable, and her screenplay treats Margit and Jonas’s second sight as a natural outgrowth of the grief they both experience. The performances have a similarly lived-in quality, particularly Bjork. Her halting, singsongy line readings, tentative eye contact, and trembling physicality reflect the pain Margit has experienced and the fear she has towards her future. As in her otherworldly music videos, Bjork gives Margit—the point-of-view character for the film—an appealing vulnerability that allows audiences to empathize with the fantastical events of the plot.
The Juniper Tree was shot in 1986, but due to budget issues was only released four years later. Before its premiere, Bjork starred in the Icelandic made-for-TV movie Broken Glass. The film seems to depict a teenage girl’s descent into mental illness and institutionalization after joining a cult. (I say “seems to” because the only available version is in unsubtitled Icelandic.) DP Kristín Jóhannesdóttir’s use of smeary analog video, blue-tinted lighting, and dutch angles recall the kinds of experimental videos you’d see at modern art museums in the 1980s, and the juxtapositions between ancient Icelandic edifices and contemporary appliances (as in the opening scene, which seems to be set at a laundromat) suggest a spoof on the “reject modernity/embrace tradition” meme.
If the film looks avant garde, the acting—at least to this non-Icelandic speaker—was consistent with American made-for-TV movies in the 1990s. The cast seems to be competing for a Best (or Most) Acting award with their high-decibel line readings, big, sweeping gestures, and contorted facial expressions. Bjork, the teenage girl protagonist, is the smallest member of the cast, and her incredulous facial expressions and pauses for breath in the middle of sentences are the kinds of things a teenage girl tired of fighting to be heard would do. Her costumes in Broken Glass—particularly the bottle-green tights and shocking pink Chuck Taylors she wears in the opening scene—are a neat bridge between her early dalliance with acting and the quirky outfits she wore onstage with The Sugarcubes.
In the 15 years between films, Bjork sang for the critically acclaimed Icelandic band the Sugarcubes and eventually forged an influential solo career of her own. Music video played a significant role in her ascent, and her charismatic, slightly loopy screen presence made some of her fans wish she would appear in a feature film. Dancer in the Dark, the film in which Bjork would eventually star, feels like a monkey’s paw wish.
In the film, Bjork plays Selma Ježková, a Czech immigrant who has moved to Washington state in the mid-1960s so her 12-year-old son Gene can get surgery to correct his degenerative eye condition. Her landlord, the town policeman Bill (David Morse), takes advantage of her own near blindness to steal the money she’d saved for Gene’s operation. When Selma attempts to recover the money, she accidentally kills Bill, and the fallout from his death leads to tragic consequences for Selma and her son.
Bjork’s ability to find the humanity in mythic stories and her knack for depicting strength in vulnerability gives her performance as Selma a palpably raw quality. Director Lars Von Trier frequently shoots her in uncomfortable, unflattering close ups that underscore how defenseless Selma is throughout the story. At times Von Trier’s screenplay and direction undermine Bjork’s performance and her public image as a whole; by casting a short, average-sized woman with dark hair and a thick Scandinavian accent in a cast of taller, slimmer blonde women who speak with midcentury American accents, he emphasizes her foreign place of origin, which is used against her in one of the trial scenes at the end of the film. Selma’s love of musicals at times seems less like a means of escape than like a hyperfixation (as in an early scene where she’s scolded for bringing the script for a production of The Sound of Music she’s starring in to her job at the factory). Bjork’s unruly singing voice works surprisingly well in the glimpses we get of her performance as Maria in The Sound of Music, and her disarmingly direct style makes musical theatre standards like “My Favorite Things” sound fresh and new.
Writing about Dancer in the Dark without discussing the effect it had on Bjork is almost impossible. When the film was in production, the press reported on her eccentric on-set behavior—such as defiantly eating a shirt—with a mocking tone that implied “that’s just Bjork being Bjork”. The singer was rumored to have given up on acting after the grueling production for Dancer in the Dark. But she released a statement in 2017 about Von Trier’s abusive and exploitative on-set behavior, describing unwanted touching and verbal sexual advances as well as the director’s anger when she set boundaries. (She also refuted one of the more notorious stories about her behavior during the film’s production: “i have never eaten a shirt. not sure that is even possible.”) It’s difficult to watch Dancer in the Dark in 2022 with the awareness of Von Trier’s treatment of Bjork and not see pain and confusion in her eyes during some of the film’s pivotal moments.
Bjork would return to film one more time in 2005 with Drawing Restraint 9, an experimental feature she made with her then-romantic partner Matthew Barney. The film is a surreal travelogue in which two Occidental Travelers (played by Barney and Bjork) fall in love and seem to transform into sea creatures during their time on a Japanese whaling vessel. As with much of Barney’s work, Drawing Restraint 9 makes a kind of intuitive sense as a deep dive on the subjects that interest him. Bjork’s unique screen presence makes her scenes the most accessible and compelling moments for those who aren’t entirely on Barney’s wavelength.
Bjork has kept busy since the release of Drawing Restraint 9, releasing a string of innovative albums and compiling a retrospective exhibit for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. What made her decide to work with Robert Eggers on The Northman? Her frequent collaborator Sjon co-wrote the script with Eggers, who describes the “familial atmosphere” of his set as a possible component for her work on the film. Bjork’s moonlit introductory closeup and her gleefully malevolent line readings suggest the rebirth of a movie star—or at least a character actress—and could portend a second attempt at a sideline in film, but this time on her own terms.