At the very least, watching Nietzchka Keene’s haunting Icelandic fairy tale “The Juniper Tree” can cause your sense of time to fall away. A black-and-white movie filmed in 1986, it recalls both the indie wilderness vibe of its time, yet also the monochromatic severity of early Bergman and Tarkovsky.
Heading the cast is an instantly recognizable Björk, prior to her becoming a global music phenomenon, which creates its own recontextualized aura around her. It’s also adapted from a Grimm fairy tale, yet infused with a modern feminist sensibility, and while it’s a ghostly affair with magical touches, it’s shot through with a hard-bitten realism about medieval life.
Keene didn’t complete her micro-budgeted debut feature, which she wrote, directed and edited, until 1989, after which it made the festival circuit — including the Sundance Film Festival in 1991 — but only received one Los Angeles showing, in 1990 at UCLA, Keene’s MFA alma mater. Now, 15 years after her death, in her starkly enchanting film has been given a 4K restoration, and another single-viewing chance, this time at the American Cinematheque. The opportunity is a welcome one, because Keene’s atmospheric gem deserves renewed appreciation and fresh discovery.
After finding a dead woman floating in a creek, stoned and drowned as a witch, waif-like Margit (Björk) and her pragmatic older sister Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir) must flee to avoid the same fate, which also claimed their mother. Stern widowed farmer Johan (Valdimar Örn Flygenring) takes them in, but his suspicious son Jonas (Geirlaug Sunna Þormar) — who visits his mother’s grave every day, like a dutiful son trying not to be forgotten — sees in Katla a family interloper practicing the dark arts.
He’s not entirely wrong, in that Katla believes in sorcery, but she’s also a persecuted woman in a harsh time trying to secure protection for herself and Margit — her seduction spells are born out of a desire to bind Johan to her, which she comes to realize would best be achieved with a pregnancy.
Jonas tries to turn his father against Katla, even though he isn’t so fearful of kindly, concerned Margit, and the young pair bond over their respective grief. But when Margit begins seeing visions of her dead mother — a silent, beckoning figure with a black hole in her chest — Jonas’ dislocation intensifies, until he feels the need to confront his stepmother at the most unwise of moments.
Those familiar with the original fairy tale will know where this is headed. Keene’s retelling preserves certain morbid details but alters others, so that a story steeped in misogyny and the supernatural can still resonate as a warning of the damaging ripple effects when desperation, displacement and mourning collide.
Stylistically, the movie is a stroll of otherworldly delirium, like a hybrid of Dreyer’s asceticism and the the chillier reveries in “The Night of the Hunter.” There’s austere beauty in cinematographer Randy Sellars’ rendering of the craggy, unforgiving Icelandic landscape, and for the memorable hypnagogic passages that occasionally fold over Margit’s reality, Keene enlisted acclaimed avant-garde director and optical effects guru Pat O’Neill.
Folk tales are how cultures make sense of the world, of how people changed and fates were secured. Keene fully grasps this, which is why she often has Björk’s Margit turning the details of the story she’s observing around her — hovering birds, a tended grave, her own loss, a boy’s worry, a woman’s desire — into a fanciful yarn she’s constantly spinning and revising. And Björk’s turn is a delicate, inviting thing, that innocent croak of a voice like some bridge between the mystical appeal of fairy tales and the cold truth about what human beings do when reason leaves them.
Keene made only a couple of films in her abbreviated life, but “The Juniper Tree” is absorbing enough to make one rue there weren’t more. But we can at least note for the history books that for all the hype Lars von Trier received for casting Björk in 2000’s “Dancer in the Dark,” a female filmmaker recognized her eccentric on-screen blend of mystery, humanity and guilelessness first.
‘The Juniper Tree’
Running time: 1 hour, 19 minutes