If you’ve seen DANCER IN THE DARK (2000) you’ll know the Icelandic “alternative musician” Bjork has an acting style and screen presence all her own. This largely forgotten Icelandic art film from 1989 marked Bjork’s first acting role, which remains impressive.
Margit is a mousy woman living with her mother and older sister Katla in medieval Iceland. One day Margit’s mother is found dead, having been burned as a witch. Margit and her sister flee to a remote farm, where the widower Johann lives with his young son Jonas. Katla casts a spell that makes Johann fall in love with her. Jonas, however, grows increasingly resentful of her attentions.
As for Margit, she takes to communicating with a ghostly woman she spots one day. The woman, who is Johann’s deceased wife (and Jonas’ mother), leads Margit into a spectral reality via a large hole in her chest(!).
Meanwhile the tension between Jonas and Katla grows increasingly pronounced. It reaches a boiling point during a Cliffside confrontation, which concludes with Jonas stepping into the void on Katla’s urging. Katla tries to cover up the crime, but Margit knows what really happened from her visits with Jonas’s ghostly mother. The question is, does she reveal all she knows or keep quiet and protect her sister?
The late Nietzchka Keene, whose filmography is quite scant outside this film, proved herself a talent to be reckoned with in THE JUNIPER TREE. Stylistically it’s fully assured and cinematically quite impressive. The air of mysticism and superstition is convincing and naturalistically rendered, and Keene doesn’t compromise her dark vision with a cop-out romance or tacked-on happy ending.
The problem is that like most art films it’s a picture one admires above all else. Entertainment-wise there’s very little to savor. The spare mountainous landscapes and black-and-white cinematography are bleak and uninviting, the characters remote and unapproachable, and nearly all the dialogue is delivered in solemn near-whispers. Some snatches of humor would have been welcome, but there are none to be found.
What holds the film together is the performance of Bjork. She has a genuinely otherworldly presence that fits in perfectly with the film’s boldly atmospheric evocation of a strange and painful time.
THE JUNIPER TREE
Comstock/Rhino Home Video
Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Nietzchka Keene
Producers: Nietzchka Keene
Cinematography: Randy Sellars
Cast: Bjork, Bryndis Petra Bragadottir, Valdimar Orn Flygenring, Guorun Gisladottir, Geirlaug Sunna Pormar