A film that’s every bit as lyrical and fraught as the T.S. Eliot poem it uses for a preface, Nietzchka Keene’s little-seen “The Juniper Tree” — shot in the summer of 1986, only to premiere at Sundance four years later after a series of financial woes — has long been thought of as the other Björk movie, the one she made before her feral, totemic, Falconetti-level performance in “Dancer in the Dark.” The one Björk made before she was even Björk (at that point, she had yet to even join The Sugarcubes).
Now, thanks to a stunning new 4K restoration made from the original 35mm camera negative, people will finally have a chance to appreciate this ethereal American gem as more than a footnote of its soon-to-be-iconic star’s career. Spellbinding as Björk’s screen presence was and has always been (between her music videos, her concert footage, and even her “Space Ghost” episode, a case could be made that she’s one of the most vital actresses of the last several decades), “The Juniper Tree” deserves to be seen outside of her shadow.
Based on the spectacularly macabre Brothers Grimm story of the same name, Keene’s debut feature revitalizes a hyper-violent fairy tale by questioning the misogyny that defines its moral order. Björk (credited here as Björk Guðmundsdóttir) plays a medieval young mystic named Margit. Her mother has just been stoned to death and her body set on fire, prompting Margit and her older sister (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir as Katla) to wander the scarred Icelandic countryside in search of shelter.
“We will go where no one knows us,” Bragadóttir intones in the film’s Bergman-like affectlessness. “I shall make a spell to find a husband… we won’t burn, not like the others, because no one will know us.” For these women, witchcraft isn’t a weapon, but rather a tool for survival. The rustic black-and-white expanse that stretches in every direction is empty and unforgiving, as though the plague of man has already burned itself out, and Margit and Katla will need to ingratiate themselves with those who remain if they wish to endure.
It isn’t long until the sisters encounter a grief-stricken widower named Johann (Valdimar Örn Flygenring), who’s been left to raise his child-age son Jonas (Geirlaug Sunna Þormar) by himself. Katla works her magic, Johann quite literally falls under her spell — though he can sense there’s something unnatural about his attraction — and the two broken families attempt to meld together. It doesn’t go so great.
The simple-seeming Margit isn’t bothered by her new situation (Björk spends much of the movie wandering the rocky shores, making shadow puppets, and singing nursery rhymes to herself that she punctuates with delightful squawks), but things are a bit more complicated for little Jonas, who violently rejects the idea of a replacement mother. While the movie’s rhapsodic and occasionally leaden narrative is guided by voices, its scenes bound together like the stanzas of a poem, the emotions of its characters are always loud and legible: when the conversation turns to Jonas’ late mother, the boy turns to Katla and says: “She was better than you.” And things only grow more tense from there.
But where the Brothers Grimm saw Katla’s character as a child-eating villain, Keene prefers to think of her as a practical woman on the same moral plane as her new husband. At worst, she’s a welcome guest; at best, she’s a nurturer. And yet, Katla is often treated like a threat, in the way that men are often afraid of what they can’t control. Keene died of her cancer in 2004 at the age of 52, but all three of the spare, elemental features she left behind are built around the conflict between ancient constructs and modern femininity — father time and mother earth — as medieval wisdom and biblical thinking are challenged by the radical idea that women and the devil aren’t one and the same.
In “The Juniper Tree,” that collision assumes a cultural dimension. The cast’s Icelandic accents inflect the English-language with a sense of foreignness, while Christian symbolism and pagan myth are rubbed together with the same friction that results from the film’s two families. As much as Keene’s severe monochrome spiritualism points back towards Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer, her playful revisionism violently breaks from those traditions, as the director taps into Björk’s animistic life force to uproot expectations. One scene, in which a sleeping Margit is encased in a glass casket, evokes “Daisies” filmmaker Věra Chytilová. A crucial special effects moment that rips the movie in half feels like it could have inspired David Lynch. At one point, when a canon of female singing voices rushes onto the soundtrack like water through the hull of a leaking ship, it almost feels as though the movie is in conversation with “Medulla,” the all-vocal album Björk would make almost 20 years later.
“The Juniper Tree” can be a bit sluggish and redundant — Johann’s suspicions aren’t enough to sustain the screen-time he’s afforded in a movie that lasts for less than 80 minutes — but it only grows richer and more revolutionary as it goes along, as Keene stacks each of the semi-hostile intersections described above until they topple over during a third act that redirects the unhinged violence of the original story towards a very different purpose. It’s as though Keene amputated the moral from the parable that grew it, decapitating an outdated fairy tale in order to hide a secret message in the stitching when she sewed the head back on. The result is a film that’s dark and delightful and ripe for rediscovery.
“The Juniper Tree” opens at The Metrograph via Arbelos Films on March 15.