Based on a particularly grim Grimm Brothers fairy tale featuring dark magic, dismemberment and a dash of cannibalism, Nietzchka Keene’s forgotten gem The Juniper Tree has been restored and returns to the big screen. Shot in 1986 but not released in the U.S. until 1989, it’s certainly best known as Björk’s film debut. More than a decade later she won Best Actress in Cannes for her role as doomed factory worker Selma in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, and in October 2017 she came forward with details of the sexual harassment and intimidation she endured from Von Trier. She has not acted in a narrative film since. Rediscovering The Juniper Tree, a fable about the suppression of female power and the desperate, dehumanizing lengths women will go to appease men, feels apt.
Driven from their village after their mother is stoned and burned for practicing witchcraft, Magrit (Björk) and older sister Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir) wander the desolate landscape of medieval Iceland in search of a new beginning. Randolph Stellar’s black and white cinematography is starkly beautiful, and the sisters’ tiny figures against the sky mirror the ancient standing stones that punctuate the emptiness. With an air of matter-of-fact resignation, Katla shows Magrit the corpse of another woman stoned for witchcraft lying face down in the water, her hands bound. The fate of a non-conforming woman looms over them. Katla claims that by casting a spell she can make any man fall hopelessly in love with her, and she is suddenly pursued by Johan (Valdimar Orn Fygenring), a widower with a hostile young son named Jonas (Geirlaug Sunna Pormar), who is still grieving his recently deceased mother. Johan welcomes the sisters into his home, but tensions rise as Jonas resists the encroachment of his new stepmother and Johan becomes suspicious of his new wife. Katla’s obsession with witchcraft escalates with shockingly violent consequences, while Magrit is haunted by visions of their own dead mother, as well as the mother Katla has replaced.
With minimal dialogue Keene crafts a strange, slow-burning atmosphere heavy with the presence of an unseen force, neither definitively good nor evil. A lean 78-minute runtime also seems to be the ideal length for adapting a Grimm Brothers tale; a lesson Disney ought to learn as their bloated live-action fairy tale remakes grow needlessly longer than their animated adaptations. Keene rather obviously signals an attempt at lyricism by opening the film with a T.S. Eliot quote, but she does manage to evoke an Ingmar Bergman-Esque otherworldly bleakness, with the most obvious source of inspiration being his brutal medieval folk tale The Virgin Spring.
While Björk’s understated performance doesn’t necessarily establish her as a future award-winner, she imbues Magrit with quiet intensity as she struggles on the cusp of womanhood. Katla might be performing rituals and casting spells, but it’s Magrit who seems to possess real power, glimpsing her murdered mother through the flames of the campfire in the semi-darkness of an Icelandic summer night. She seems afraid of what she’s inherited, defiantly saying her prayers by candlelight in a vain attempt to ward off what’s rising up within her. Björk was twenty one when she appeared in this film but seems far younger. She plays with her new stepbrother as if she herself is still a child, but her naivety is shattered as she witnesses her sister lose her humanity for the sake of clinging on to her husband’s love and security. Burgeoning witchcraft and burgeoning sexuality going hand in hand is rather a cliché, and yet Björk manages to inspire empathy towards this relatively underdeveloped character who seems almost enveloped by the rocks and cliffs of Iceland.
The Juniper Tree’s rather slight characterization might prevent it from making a stronger emotional impact. Yet within its unforgiving yet stunning landscapes Keene does manage to conjure up a deeply unsettling, distinctly female force of untapped rage. Perhaps the film will solely be remembered as what helped launch Björk’s extraordinary career as an actress and singer, but it certainly deserves greater recognition as a fairy story with a nasty sting in its tail, in which women must learn to use their power or perish.