(Nietzschka Keene’s Iceland-set The Juniper Tree is tough to find on DVD but is playing at the amazing Metrograph in NYC the week of March 15-20.)
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, those halcyon years during which a Sundance hit could win the Palme d’Or and a successful arthouse run was measured not in weeks but in months, the American independent cinema produced a slew of ambitious works that transcended national borders by way of not only their reference points and intended audiences but also their sites of production. While most have been forgotten, Nietzschka Keene’s Iceland-set The Juniper Tree has re-surfaced thanks to both a new restoration by the Wisconsin Center for Film & Television Research in collaboration with the Film Foundation and a decades-overdue premiere theatrical run at Metrograph in New York.
Björk was merely twenty years old when she landed the lead role, shot four years before its belated premiere in 1990, but on the basis of her reputation in the European experimental rock scene she already lent star power to the shoestring production. Despite an all Icelandic cast, the film is in English and curiously devoid of references to the island nation. Very loosely adapted from a tale by the brothers Grimm of the same name, The Juniper Tree follows two wandering sisters, Margit (Björk) and Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir), looking for somewhere to start a new life after their mother has been put to death for witchcraft. Katla meets a widower named Jóhann with a son named Jónas, and they get married. Whereas in the Grimms’ short story, Katla is an archetypal evil stepmother who would be glad to see her stepson dead so that she can inherit her husband’s wealth through their daughter (a character that doesn’t exist in the film), here the malicious one is Jónas, who rejects Katla on the grounds that she too might be a witch. The feminist twist that Keene puts on the fairy tale is furthered by the omission of Marlene, a step-sister to Jónas. One could say that Margit takes her place. This critical difference substitutes ambiguity for some of the moralizing one expects from a fairy tale with and establishes a friendship between Margit and Jónas that contributes to the film’s offbeat warmth.
Given the medieval Northern European setting and sun-kissed black-and-white cinematography, comparisons to The Seventh Seal are almost inevitable, but a comparison might also compellingly be made to David Lynch, whose frequent play with depth perception and hallucinatory visions that lunge out of nowhere (indeed, often from the confines of the home or otherwise familiar realms) has much in common with The Juniper Tree’s most indelible images (Margit trapped in an ivy-clad glass coffin, or her mother revealing a black hole between her breasts). Lynch and Keene share, too, a childlike wonder toward rugged landscapes and spectral skies, paradoxically finding both solace and terror in the woods. But whereas maternity is constantly sublimated in Lynch, for Keene it is a concrete object of interest and grief. Jónas yearns for his mother, who was a bird; Margit watches him lay flowers at her grave and blankly notes she doesn’t even know where her own mother is resting.
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– Joseph Pomp (@pompqmoq)