Monday, February 21, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #7 - The Juniper Tree (1990, dir. Nietzchka Keene)

I have been recommending this film to Bjork fans for well over a decade now.  This film was made in 1990, but I did not discover it until 1997.  Almost every time someone starts raving about her, I ask "Have you seen the Juniper Tree?"  Rarely has anyone said yes.  It is not so important how much of a fan you are, this movie has become a film I recommend for the film quality itself and not so much because of her. 
It is a melancholy coming of age story focusing on a 13-year old girl, Margit (Björk), who has joined up with her sister after their mother has been killed by townspeople for being a witch.  Her character mixes Christian prayer, saint songs, spells and amulets in her need to control the dangerous world around her. This is loosely based on a Brothers Grimm story that stays true to their feel and to parts of the story, but the director’s focus is on the folklore of Iceland and the persecution of witches. This is a tale of an evil stepmother, just as morbid and creepy as the original - which you have most likely never heard (I had never heard it) because it was censored from most editions for children.  Margit tries to love and protect the people around her but death may be the stronger theme in this tale.
Iceland is the true star of this film, with its ragged rocks that look like ancient majestic skylines. The contrast of textures in this movie is accentuated by being filmed in black and white. It reminds me of David Lynch in the sense that B&W used in a modern film seems to give a rich sense of contrast between light and dark.  When the subject is asking moral and ethical questions like what is good and what is evil, I think black and white becomes a subtle but meaningful touch. The filming locations are stunning; the house that the sisters flee to is one of the oldest homes in Iceland, the interior shots were from rooms in two different natural museums.  The shoes and clothes were made to be true to the period, which is set roughly in the middle ages. It was written and directed by an American woman, Nietzchka Keene, and is in English, though very rich with thick Scandinavian accents. I enjoyed the lilting quality of the spoken words, the singing and the use of songbirds throughout the film.  There are scenes on the country side that look like the most perfect summer day, where the birds fill the air and background, then there are more menacing moments when they add to the tension and fear.
There is also a sexual undertone through out this movie - just keep in mind that Bjork was actually nineteen when she played this part.  She adds an innocent childlike lightness to her character while maintaining a complex depth that leaves some things open to interpretation.  This is a must see for Bjork fans, and perhaps Sigur Ros fans. This movie is also good for people who enjoyed Antichrist or Dancer in the Dark by Lars Von Trier.  But don't be scared, this film is nowhere near as dark or depressing.
- Natasha

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