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FALL SNEAKS

An Anti-Musical's Anti-Star

Bjork insists she did not eat her clothes on the set. Still, the 'Dancer in the Dark' actress has much to explain.

September 10, 2000|JOHN CLARK | John Clark is a regular contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — It's been a miserable summer in the city--cold, rainy--but for techno-pop chanteuse Bjork, who has spent most of it in the city, it's been delightful. After all, she is from chilly Iceland, which to most Americans might as well be the moon. Even far-flung places have their exports, however. Bjork is Iceland's cultural ambassador, a celebrity, a cult figure, a curiosity, because of her eclectic music and videos, her punk Valkyrie image, and now her role in Danish director Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark," a musical that won the Palme d'Or and a best actress award for her at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Because of the film, Bjork's ambassadorship has been raised to a new level--not that this has been pleasant for her. Notoriously press-shy, she finds herself having some explaining to do regarding "Dancer in the Dark." In fact, she's been in New York this cold, rainy summer doing just that (and recording a new album to be released next spring, tentatively called "Domestika"). "It seems we had some communication difficulties," Von Trier says dryly, doing some explaining of his own. At Cannes, Bjork and Von Trier made headlines by feuding over the film. She was unhappy with him because of how he handled her music (collectively called "Selmasongs," to be released Sept. 19).

He was unhappy with her because she walked off the set and disappeared, refused to promote the movie and prevented a screening of it. He called her "a madwoman," in part because she took the role excessively to heart, making direction of her difficult. She was so nutty during filming that she reportedly ate her clothes.

"That's rubbish," Bjork says in an Icelandic-British accent that even co-star Catherine Deneuve calls "weird." "I think they were trying to create a scandal, a hype around the film. But I'm a great lover of storytelling, coming from the land of the sagas. I thought it was funny. I guess there's a line there, and that's why I decided to defend myself--not to defend myself so much but defend her [Selma, the character she plays]. Even though I don't think it's a fantastic film, I think it's precious. It's three years of my life, and I care a lot for it."

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Audiences seem as divided about the film as Bjork does, either crying or shaking their fists at the screen. It is set in Washington state during the 1950s. Selma is a Czech emigre who lives in a trailer with her son and works in a factory making steel sinks along with her best friend, Kathy (Deneuve). She is slowly going blind and is saving money for an operation to prevent the same thing from happening to her son, who is unaware of his condition (and hers). In a sequence as melodramatic as it sounds, her money is stolen, she murders the thief and ends up on death row.

A simple woman, an obsessive love, a terrible choice: All of this is reminiscent of Von Trier's breakout film, "Breaking the Waves," in which Emily Watson's character prostitutes herself to save her husband's life.

Like "Breaking the Waves," much of "Dancer in the Dark" is shot in a hand-held documentary style in conformance with the rules of Dogma 95, the filmmaking creed that rejects Hollywood-style production values. Scenes are caught rather than "created." However, the scenes in this film are occasionally interrupted by Selma's escapist fantasies, highly choreographed musical numbers in which she sings and dances to the accompaniment of violins and ambient noise.

Call it an anti-musical, with Bjork as its anti-star. Nobody is going to confuse her with Judy Garland or Debbie Reynolds. Her character wears heavy, black-rimmed glasses, speaks as if she's been dubbed and is generally frumpy. Her singing is an ecstatic, mournful croon. She moves rather than dances. And yet you can't take your eyes off her.

"I think she's remarkable," Von Trier says. "There are some moments in this film--not the story or the action, just her performance or her presence--that make me cry."

Bjork says her acting was a matter of complete indifference to her.

"I have no ambition as an actress," she says. "I wanted to care, but I didn't. I remember Catherine Deneuve saying, 'Don't you think it's amazing that you can just become someone else?' And I just looked at her and said no. It's not appealing to me at all. I tried to explain this to Lars. I feel I haven't even fully become what I am, the potential I was given, and I have to work really hard, for 40 years at least, to bring out the songs that I hear in my head. To become someone else seems like a waste of time."

"I don't know if you can say she's acting, she's so much living the situation," says Deneuve, who seems both sympathetic and bemused by Bjork (and spent New Year's Eve in Reykjavik with her). "I tried to help her, to protect her from being too vulnerable. That's why it was so hard, and that's why she had conflicts with Lars, because it was so painful for her."

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