For years, pop music critics have been groping for the words to define Björk, that hypnotic singer from Iceland who produces wild, eccentric hits to the accompaniment of lush Hollywood strings, drum machines and factory sound effects. The reviewers call her an "elf," a "pixie," or a "waif," sometimes a "techno pixie" or a "pop munchkin."
At the age of 35, she still projects a sense of girlish pluckiness. A Vogue magazine writer recently called her "brave, honest, childlike." Her songs carry the message that she's facing an overwhelming force (love, men, the world, whatever) but will somehow emerge triumphant. Dancer in the Dark, the movie that presents an especially poignant version of Björk under the direction of Lars von Trier, may not be the greatest film of the year, but certainly offers one of the oddest conjunctions in recent cultural history.
Trier, a sternly ambitious Danish director, sells melodrama in thick slabs. Dancer in the Dark's outline might have been written by a 19th-century children's author, the kind now read only by scholars as horrible examples. Selma (Björk) is an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, living in the northwestern U.S. in the 1960s. She speaks English with an imitation Czech accent that's hard to distinguish from a speech impediment. An inherited condition is slowly making her blind, and she's desperately accumulating money for the operation that will save her 10-year-old son from the same fate. (Just as in the oldest melodramas, she keeps her cash in a little tin box.) Her landlord steals the money, he dies fighting off her attempts to reclaim it, and a heartless court sentences her to death.
Selma loves movie musicals because "nothing dreadful ever happens" in a musical. So the story of Dancer in the Dark often comes to a halt while Selma daydreams a song-and-dance number, which she performs with the other characters to Björk's music (the soundtrack, Selmasongs, is an Elektra CD).
As a film performer, Björk has a withdrawn, distant style, and when she's not bursting into song she seems almost autistic. Her emotions tend to be both boxed in and raw, a potent combination that leaves the audience with the feeling of having encountered someone who will be hard to forget. We can understand why the other characters (including a friend played by Catherine Deneuve) tolerate her eccentricity; like the audience, they're mesmerized by her.
Trier was an author of Dogme 95, a manifesto to cure the ills that beset the current cinema, an art gone decadent, "cosmeticized to death" by artificiality. The directors who signed Dogme 95 in Copenhagen five years ago took a "vow of chastity," promising to win back the purity of the cinema by following strict rules: Shoot only on location, never on constructed sets, use only a hand-held camera, don't enhance the light that's already there, work only with props that come immediately to hand, produce the sound while you are producing the images rather than overlaying it later, etc.
That list was written half in jest and half as provocation. The authors have since demonstrated that they always follow those rules, except when they don't. Thomas Vinterberg, a signatory who later impressed everyone with his film The Celebration (about one of those grand 60th birthday parties where the patriarch's children begin telling the ugly truth about him and each other) has confessed that "the very strict and serious Manifesto was actually written in only 25 minutes and under continuous bursts of merry laughter. Still, we maintain that we are in earnest."
Trier, already an experienced director, came to world attention in 1996 with Breaking the Waves, which recalls Graham Greene's miracle-novel, The Heart of the Matter, about a saintly young woman who saves her lover's life through the intensity of her sacrifice. Trier and Greene share the notion that the mad and the foolish may know something about God that the rest of us have forgotten or never learned.
Breaking the Waves' heroine, Bess (magnificently played by Emily Watson), is a sexy Christian saint. After her husband is paralyzed and almost killed in an oil-rig accident, he wants her to enjoy sex with other men and describe it to him. She soon considers this her duty and her form of sacrifice. "God gives everyone a talent," she says. "I can believe." The audience believes her.
The story plays out on a lonely island in Scotland where the plain religious folk are such perverse self-deniers that they won't have a bell on their church; that would be frippery, and vain. Their version of Christianity is to religion what Dogme 95 is to movies, so Trier understands them.
But if he's the enemy of artificiality, he often comes across as the enemy of competence, too. He takes a strangely languid view of storytelling, as if he wanted to avoid keeping the audience interested. He reaches for a "natural" look but ends up with something highly unnatural, his camera often calling attention to itself. (You need a lot of artifice to look natural.)
Trier wants his style on display, and wants his audience to wander through the story with him, perhaps puzzled by the characters in the same way he's puzzled, depressed by them as he's depressed by them. The Daily Telegraph reported last month, "He is devoted to his daily dose of Prozac." His audiences could also use a little Prozac, perhaps sprinkled on the popcorn.
Trier considers clumsiness a virtue and doesn't worry a lot about having the picture in focus. He's a director who blurs the line between moviegoing and voluntary submission to mental torture.
Even so, his ambitions are complicated enough to be interesting, and his audacity runs off the charts. And this year, with Dancer in the Dark, some of us will be grateful to him for making us listen to Björk. Along with two CDs, I now own the cassette of her magnificent 1993 record, Debut, so her swooping, soaring, intensely emphatic voice has been my Walkman companion for several days. She's startling, original and curiously loveable, one of those rare figures who rise up from the din of popular music and establish themselves as genuine originals.