Discovering Björk’s acting debut in The Juniper Tree was some divine happenstance. I had lost track of her music career sometime after 2001’s Vespertine, so it was delightful to recently give her latest album Biophilia a (four years late) first listen and discover its fantastic weirdness, obsessively looping it through my headphones all last week. A recommendation that same week alerted me that I was 25 years behind on the release of another Björk project, a small budget, black & white indie film about witchcraft.
The Juniper Tree was filmed in 1986 in the months following the dissolution of Björk’s post-punk band KUKL and the birth of her first child. By the time the film cleared its financial hurdles and saw a 1990 release in Iceland and on film festival circuits, she had already earned much greater success with the alt rock group The Sugarcubes. By the time it saw a wide, international release in 1993, she had achieved major success as a solo artist with the album Debut. In comparison to the huge “Bad Taste” art collective behind The Sugarcubes and the big-name record labels behind Debut, The Juniper Tree’s cast and budget are microscopic, but the film does a lot with a little, pulling a weird little story and some bizarre images from a few locations and even fewer moving pieces. At least from a funding standpoint, it was a time capsule of a primitive state of Björk’s growth as an artist, but one that demonstrates how little material she needs to work with to produce something great.
Loosely based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the same name, The Juniper Tree is the story of two grieving families struggling to blend into one cohesive unit. Think of it as an Icelandic Brady Bunch, but with witches & cannibalism instead of puppy love & nose-breaking footballs. Björk plays Margit, a young woman whose mother was recently stoned & burned for practicing witchcraft. In the escape from their home her sister Katla marries a young widower who lives alone with his son. The boy befriends Margit, but is vehemently against his father’s marriage to Katla, who he knows to be a witch. Although Katla does cast spells (cruelly & often), it is Margit who possesses truly magical abilities, most importantly the ability to communicate with ghosts.
The film’s heart lies with the relationship between Margit and her young brother-in-law and the mourning that bonds them, but it’s the fleeting, hallucinatory imagery that makes it noteworthy. Despite its budget, The Juniper Tree manages to produce an impressive range of images: a hand thrust into a black hole, a ghost perched on Icelandic cliffs, fish picking at an underwater corpse, Northern Lights, birds in flight. It’s a somber, self-serious affair, but one that earns its odder moments in a very short run time. If nothing else, the heavenly tones of Björk’s singing voice elevate the material into otherworldly territory. She’s perfectly suited for this world of witchcraft & mourning and it shows in the final product.
Of course, The Juniper Tree will always be known as the other Björk movie. Lars von Trier’s powerful Dancer in the Dark gave her a much larger stage to prove herself not only as an incredible composer, but also as an actress, a talent she doesn’t utilize nearly enough. The Juniper Tree gets drowned out in the comparison, but when considered in isolation it’s an interesting little art movie. It’s very much Super Serious 80s/90s Film School Fodder, but if a young, feral Björk practicing witchcraft goes as far with you as it does with me, you’ll find it kinda perfect in its small-scale intimacy.
The Juniper Tree is currently streaming on Hulu.