Vogue

A brave new Björk

With a potent performance in the Lars von Trier musical Dancer in the Dark, pop diva Björk launched — and, it seems, promptly halted — a career on the big screen. The experience, Jonathan Van Meter finds, was anything but the same old song and dance. Photographs by Steven Klein.

One morning last year, toward the end of filming on Dancing in the Dark, the Lars von Trier musical that won the Golden Palm at Cannes in May, Björk approached her much more experienced costar (and new friend) Catherine Deneuve with a question : "I don’t understand how you do this job," Björk said. "How do you do it ?"

"Well, don’t you think it’s amazeeng to wake up in the morneeng and just become someone completely deefferent ?" said Deneuve in her charming French accent. "Don’t you find it fascinateeng ?" Björk being Björk — brave, honest, childlike — she stared back at the actress, blinked a couple of times, and said, "No."

Becoming someone completely different for Björk — in this case, the long-suffering Selma, a woman who goes blind, murders her beloved neighbor, loses her son, and is promptly executed — was not amazing and fascinating, it was excruciating, and she says she will never act again.

Fast forward. It’s just after noon on a blistering day in late June — one month after Björk won Best Actress honors at Cannes — and the 34-year-old Icelandic pop star is sitting in The River Café in Brooklyn, enjoying a lunch of shrimp and cappuccino. We have come here for the spectacular view of the New York harbor (Björk loves being on the water), not the atmosphere, which is a bit yacht-clubby. To say that Björk stands out at this fussy institution is to grossly oversimplify : She’s wearing the very same dizzy-making hot-pink-and-black striped Alexandre Matthieu dress that she wore when she accepted her award back in May, a getup that prompted the New York Daily News to write, "If there had been an award for weird outfits, Björk would have won that, as well." Her camisole has a run in it, and pinned just beneath her cleavage is a rumpled pink silk rose. Her hair has grown out into an unruly black mop of a thousand layers. She has three pearl earrings in her right ear. Her fake-furry white purse lies on the chair next to her, looking for all the world like a sleeping cat in need of a good stiff brushing. On her feet, ballet slippers — with heels.

She looks a bit like a punk version of Eliza Doolittle, which, oddly enough, is how I imagined her three years ago. In August 1997, Björk was about to go on tour to support the release of her third solo album, the minimalist masterpiece Homogenic, when I spent a week following her from London (where she was living) to Munich (where the tour began). A couple of years earlier, she had made a video for her cover of the Betty Hutton song "It’s Oh So Quiet" with the director Spike Jonze Being John Malkovich) that was, visually and choreographically, a brilliant post-modern take on a fifties musical. One day, over coffee in a pub in Soho, I said, Half-kidding, that after seeing the video I thought she should do a modern, twisted update of My Fair Lady.

"I’ve always wanted to do a musical since I was a kid," she said, eyes ablaze, in her odd, hyperbolic version of English. "I’ve talked about it for years and years and years. Except I would like not for the music to just come out of the walls. I would like it to be very down-to-earth and modern." Clearly, I was not the only one who had fantasized about a Björk musical. When I asked von Trier why he chose Björk to realize his vision, he says that he saw the same "It’s Oh So Quiet" video and thought she had "fantastic charisma." On November 21, 1997, Björk’s thirty-second birthday, he gave her a call.

"When Lars came to me with the script," she says, "I was like ... " she sucks in a quick breath "... this is so close to what I want to do ! I always knew that if I were ever to do music to film, I would do nothing else and have a very intimate relationship with the director and it would be organic and every song would come from the bottom of my toes."

It’s a gutsy move, making a movie musical these days. In the past 20 years there have been probably fewer than ten (major) attempts, and even fewer relative successes (Spike Lee’s School Daze ; Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You ; Alan Parker’s Evita). Of late, though, we have witnessed something of a minirevival : There’s Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, for example, and Baz Luhrmann’s all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza Moulin Rouge, which comes out in December ; Glenn Close is somewhere in the Australian jungle filming a remake of South Pacific for ABC ; Robert De Niro is producing Prison Song, starring Q-Tip, Mary J. Blige, and Elvis Costello ; and the successful Off-Broadway musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch is being made into a film.

All of the above at least sound like good ideas, but when news got out that von Trier was throwing his hat into the ring it seemed more absurd than inspired. Von Trier, a famously eccentric and phobic 44-year-old Danish director who makes difficult and singular (some might add boring and pretentious) films, is perhaps best known for Breaking the Waves, which captured the Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes in 1996. He is also known in the international film community as the cofounder of Dogme 95, a loose collective of filmmakers who quasi-committed themselves to a manifesto-like set of rules called "The Vow of Chastity." Dogme 95 was a reaction to the high-gloss pyrotechnics of Hollywood — a kind of minimalist, stripped-down, no-fancy-extras approach to filmmaking. Musicals, of course, are all about fancy extras, so how could the dogmatic ideologue make a musical ?

Enter Björk.

Like some of Björk’s music, the result is strange and challenging — but absolutely mesmerizing. In Dancer in the Dark, set in rural America in 1963, she plays Selma, a Czech immigrant and single mother who toils in a factory to raise the money necessary to pay for her son’s operation. She is slowly being overtaken by genetic blindness — a fate her son will suffer as well unless he receives treatment. Selma’s fantasy life is filled with vision of classic Hollywood musicals, and as the daily drudgery of her existence slowly escalates into betrayal, violence, and, ultimately, death, Selma’s lush musical daydream sequences — reportedly filmed with 100 digital cameras — are spliced into the rather grim narrative (which may or may not dutifully adhere to the rules of Dogme, but certainly looks as if it does.)

Initially, Björk agreed only to do the music for the film, a prospect she relished. After three very personal solo albums, she was hungry for material outside her own experience. But when she read the script, she said, "the idea of putting all of me into this other person and trying to imagine what her interior would sound like was really exciting and quite liberating." Eventually, von Trier persuaded her to play Selma, as well. "The angle I took on it was that it wasn’t really acting," says Björk. "It was more like an extension of my songs ; it was an act of protecting my songs. Then when we started preparing for the acting I told [von Trier] from the top that I would have to feel it from instinct. And he said ’That suits me fine because I can’t stand actresses and acting.’"

This, it seems, is the only thing they agreed on. The conflict and troubles that arose on the set during filming are already legend. Björk disappeared for four days, and she and von Trier spoke through an intermediary for part of the shoot. "She cannot act," Deneuve famously said the day of the film’s debut at Cannes, "she can only be, and some of the situations are so hard in the film that she was so much in pain that she could not recover and go on .... Sometimes she would run away." At the same press conference, von Trier confessed, "It has been terrible. What can I say ? Björk is not an actor, which was a surprise to me because she seemed so professional, and she really isn’t I enjoyed working with her, and I will never do it again."

Dancer/choreographer Vincent Paterson, whose credits include Evita, The Birdcage, and numerous music videos, says, "I find it hard to accept when Lars or anyone else says Björk is not an actress. An actor is someone who is capable of exposing truth for the camera. Björk’s performance is one of the most interesting, passionate, and vulnerable pieces of acting I have ever seen." Paterson thinks some of the conflict came from the fact that "Björk wanted to have final say over the musical sequences, and Lars, of course, would not permit this. But honestly, I think the difficult part stemmed from two genius egos both accustomed to residing in their own creative utopias."

When I asked von Trier about the double-edged sword of casting Björk — a deeply sensitive nonactor — as the lead, he says, "The upside was that this is some of the best performance I have ever seen. She hypnotized herself into going into this character. The downside is that it was so painful for her that I became the bad guy who had to drag her through this every day."

One secne in particular — the disturbing, violent, and bloody turning point in which Selma brutally beats and kills her neighbor to protect her son — nearly drove Björk over the edge. "She’d never held a gun in her hand before," says David Morse, who plays the neighbor. "She genuinely had to go through that experience to be able to do the scene, and it was very tough on her." Björk says, "It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, ever. It fights against everything inside me. I think twice in my life I’ve hit someone." One of those times was in 1996. Björk and her son, Sindri, passing through an airport in Bangkok, were descended upon by journalists and cameramen. A young reporter stuck a microphone in her then-ten-year-old’s face, and Björk snapped ; she beat the stuffing out of the woman and threw her to the ground. The footage was broadcast around the world. When I mention this, she laughs. "That’s the funny thing, right ? The two times I’ve hit someone were the most well-documented events of my life. There were, like, ten cameras." She lets rip with a deep loud, throaty laugh. "Funnily enough — and Lars would never admit to it — the reason he felt so strongly about me acting in his film was partly because of that thing that happened in Bangkok. Because he saw a mother defending her boy. A person who would never, ever do that. And that’s Selma, really."

Shooting the mruder scene over and over again for two days left Björk "delirious." Later they asked her to reshoot it. "I tried," she says, shaking her head, "but something in me just cracked. To go back to that place was too much. I just ran away. They kept telling me, ’You don’t have to feel that way, you just have to go like this’" — she makes a stabbing motion with her hand. "I was like, ’You’re talking to the wrong person here.’ Again, I’m not an actress. I can’t just push a button on and then off."

Siobhan Fallon plays the prison guard who bonds with Selma at the end of the film while she’s on death row. "Björk would say, ’I hope I’m doing this all right.’ And I’m thinking to myself, Doing this all right ? You’re unbelievable."

When I ask Björk whom she got closest to on the set, her answer is swift : Catherine Denueve. "She’s amazing. Very, very strong. Very, very graceful. Very kind." The two in fact became such good friends that Deneuve spent New Year’s Eve with Björk’s friends and family at the musician’s home in Iceland. On the set, it was Deneuve who gave Björk the courage of her convictions. "She was very protective toward me, and I really appreciated it," says Björk. "The fact that I was doing it so instinctively and that somebody so experienced was saying, ’You’re right. Just do it that way,’ was very important to me. That’s the best thing that can happen to you when you’ve never acted before and just know that it has to be this way."

"They were compatriots," Paterson says. "It was never Catherine the Diva ; she got her hands dirty as well as partied with the rest of us." At the film’s opening night at Cannes, says Paterson, "as we all walked down the red carpet, Catherine, the experienced one, led the way. Through a flawless smile and closed teeth she told us, ’All right, take five steps forward, stop, smile. Take five steps forward. Björk, step out and take a bow. Now all take five steps forward.’"

In the end, shooting the film wasn’t all horrible. For one thing, Björk and Paterson developed their own little mutual admiration society. "He was really amazing to work with," says Björk. "We were dancing for t4n hours a day — I’ve enver worked so hard in my life — but it was always fun." Paterson says, "Björk came in the first day with a checkered dress with sleeves to her knees, jeans, and red shoes with little taps on her toes. I fell in love immediately. The naïveté and originality of her body language always made my work seem so organic and fascinating. I love the way she moves."

Björk Gudmundsdóttir was born in 1965 in Reykjavík, Iceland, to parents who had been a couple since the age of fourteen. Björk’s mother was unhappy as a housewife, so she divorced her husband and became "a hard-core hippie," eventually living with her daughter in a house with seven other adults. (Björk now has three brothers and three sisters, with three mothers and three fathers among them.) "They all had long hair and listened to Jimi Hendrix all day long, and everything was painted purple ... which is brilliant for a kid," she told a reporter several years ago.

By the age of seven she began to grow tired of all the unfulfilled dreaming of her mother and their hippie friends and rebelled by becoming a self-sufficient and ambitious little girl. Studying flute and piano in Iceland’s classical-music system, Björk became something of a prodigy and released an album of Icelandic folk songs at the age of eleven. It sold 5,000 copies in a country of about 265,000. The album’s hit Arab Boy was written by a stepfather and made Björk a household name in Iceland. She posed for the album cover in a caftan.

After her early success, Björk refused to make another record ; the preteen had already developed a distaste for the music business. At thirteen, she began playing in a series of short-lived punk bands. As she got pulled further into the tiny punk scene in Iceland, she met fellow anarchist Thór Eldon, and, after getting pregnant at nineteen, married him and gave birth to their son. The family of three moved into a house, and it quickly became the hangout for a bunch of writers and artists, not unlike the communal environment she grew up in. Today, several of these friends remain close to Björk and often travel with her.

In 1987, Björk and Thór, along with four others, formed The Sugarcubes as a joke and released the guttural pop-punk single "Birthday." When the song began to create a buzz in Britain, they rerecorded it in English and followed it up with a full-length debut, Life’s Too Good, a year later, bringing the band — and particularly Björk and her astonishing, swooping vocals — to the attention of the world. ("I really do think she’s the best singer I’ve ever heard," Mark Bell, Björk’s current producer, said a few years ago. "Even live. She can sing it every single time, and it’s just perfect. She really understands everything about music.") Four years and three more albums later, The Sugarcubes petered out and Björk and Thór had already split up, though the two remain close and share the responsibility of raising Sindri.

In 1993, Björk left Reykjavík for London. "I was never going to leave Iceland, ever, " she says. "I was going to hang out with my grandmother and buy a lighthouse and write songs and be very Icelandic. And then I was just going to go to London for a bit in order to be brave and do my own album because I couldn’t do it in Iceland." But months turned to years, and Björk bought a house in Little Venice and decided to stay put.

It was during this fertile time in London — the rise of the new Britannica musically and fashionwise — that Björk recorded not one but two classic albums, Debut and Post, both of which feature extravagant dance music and quickly became the sound track for a generation of international hipsters. Because Björk is so modern and brave in her taste — for example, wearing a shocking pink, Chinese-lantern-shaped Marjan Pejoski dress to the opening night at Cannes — it didn’t take long for her to become the darling of European editors, photographers, and avant-garde designers like Alexander McQueen, Nick Knight,Jeremy Scott, and Hussein Chalayan, whom she befriended and collaborated with ; and Stephan Sednaoui and deejays Goldie, Tricky, and Howie B., all of whom she dated.

Chalayan, who designed clothes for Björk’s last tour, says that while she inspires a lot of people visually, it works both ways. "There are so many people around her from so many different disciplines that she would admit herself that it’s mutual. It’s synergy, I suppose." Chalayan likens Björk’s marriage of haute and street to Grace Jones and her collaborations in the late seventies and early eighties with art directors like Jean-Paul Goude. "What’s different about Björk’s approach is that her ideas in the early nineties were touching on things that most musicians hadn’t touched on before. She made references to things that weren’t related to fashion or music — like nature and poetry and technology — that she kind of introduced through fashion and music."

McQueen, who collaborated with Björk and Nick Knight on the album cover for Homogenic and on a recent installation project that the trio did in a church in Avignon, France, says, "She really gives you free rein, and she listens to everything and everyone. She just absorbs people, and that’s why she comes out with so many different and brilliant ideas."

Does she inspire you ? "Oh, God, definitely. She inspired me for a collection I did for Givenchy with the cover of Homogenic ; just the way she was talking inspired me to think differently."

Londoners took Björk to heart in part because she’s an eccentric glamour-puss who combines three archetypes the English have a soft spot for : hardworking mom (like Paula Yates), self-styled woman-child (Kylie Minogue), and public chameleon (Polly Jean Harvey). In some ways, she’s more English than the English. "When I first went to London," she says, "I was just with a back sack and a kid and I was coming for an adventure and I didn’t know what was going to happen and I ended up bumping into people in the street who sort of wanted to change the world and I wanted to change the world."

But after a few years of "going a million miles an hour," Björk experienced a bit of a crash in 1996. First there was the incident in Bangkok ; then several months later a crazed fan in Miami, disturbed by Björk’s impending mixed-race nuptials to the London deejay Goldie (a wedding that was ultimately called off), sent her a letter bomb before killing himself. Overnight, Björk went from youth culture’s cuddly mascot to tabloid fixture. Her response was to flee to Spain to record the introspective and murky Homogenic. "At that time, I experienced it as something painful," she says. "I was leaving London. Something that intense could only have been for a short time. From those four years, looking back on it, my true friends are still there for me and I love London from the bottom of my heart and I’m keeping my place there. A big part of me is British."

"I’m always a sucker for creativity," Björk said tome three years ago when I asked about her taste in fashion. "It wins me over every time. Some designers are beyond fashion. They’re just about expressing themselves, maybe with humor. Like, Ha-ha, you thought it was this but, ha-ha ! It’s this. Hocus-pocus ! Ever since I was a little kid I used to change twice, three times a day depending on the mood. If it’s a question of power, or Versace, Gucci bollocks, of I own this much money, I hate it with a passion. It’s like German cars. I’ve got a problem with German cars."

Today at The River Café I ask her about the designers she admires, and she mentions McQueen and Chalayan but then adds, "I don’t really care if people make clothes or if they make sculptures or raise children or run offices. I come from a family where my grandmother’s a painter and my grandfather’s a bricklayer and my father’s an electrician. I’m obsessed with the process. When Hussein was starting out, in ’93, he had just come out of school and nobody knew who he was and we would meet for coffee and talk about his shows for three hours like lunatics. But with someone like Lee [Alexander McQueen], it’s more a group of friends that I hang out with when I’m in London. You couldn’t find two more different people than Hussein and Lee, but what’s similar about them is how unique they are and how much a whole universe each person is."

As an afterthought, she says, "And I always feel very precious about Comme des Garçons just because I’ve been wearing it for so many ears, and even before I could afford it, just knowing that they were doing what they were doing made me happy. It was like, Yes ! Go, girl !"

When Björk came to New York this summer, she brought in tow a big suitcase full of her own clothes — her bag of tricks, as it were. She has been toting the trunk to photo shoots so that she can have a say, collaborate in her own styling. "I usually bring my own stuff because I realize there are limitations," she says. "At the end of the day, I’m very idiosyncratic. That’s why being a model is such a real talent. That you can be that flexible and that open and people can throw anything at you and you’re the catalyst that makes it work. I think being born with beauty is talent. It’s like being born with intelligence."

Because Björk herself has been the catalyst for so many iconic fashion shoots and video images, the head of her record label in London has encouraged her to do a photo book. Expected to come out in February 2001, it will be a document of all her many collaborations with designers, photographers, artists, and video directors. "I managed to set up a list of the people I’ve worked with who are most precious to me," she says, "because I feel like this Björk thing was not really my work, it was several people." Björk — the project — has been a series of brilliant collaborations ; Björk — the person — is all the more impressive for having acknowledged it. It’s worth noting, however, that the press materials that accompanied her biggest and most recent collaboration — with von Trier on Dancer in the Dark — included this quote from Björk : "The next project, everything’s going to be craftsmanship. I’m going to have the discipline to sit down and do it myself. I still love communication and collaborations, but I think there’s a line where you’re being lazy and where you’re being brave."

Björk orders another cappuccino, and I ask her if she had any personal revelations from the making of the film. She hems and haws for a minute and then spits one out : "I should be doing music, and I should spend all my time on music. Doing this film felt like I was having an affair. It just comes down to basics, and I would die, literally die for the right tune. But I would not die for a film. It’s just how much you care. I think we’ve all got our mission, and that’s just my mission : music."

If Björk’s screen career is truly over, it certainly went out with a bang. She moved back to Iceland after filming ended last summer and stayed put for nine months. It was the first time since her teen years that she was in the country long enough to see the seasons change. She even enrolled her son in school there. When I ask her when she knew she would attend Cannes, she says, "Only two or three weeks before. Some of my friends were like, ’Are you going to go ?’ ’Nah, can’t be bothered. What am I going to wear, anyway ?’ And it wasn’t until the last two weeks where we decided, If you go, I’ll go. So we ended up going together, a group of like six or seven of us, just to tie a ribbon on the whole thing. As a ritual, to make this journey." Björk stayed in France for two weeks after Cannes. "I would open my door and walk on the street," she says, now getting up from the table to act out her story, "and people would get out of their cars and clap and yell, ’Bravo !’ I would walk into a restaurant, and the whole restaurant would stand up and clap their hands and I would get free champagne !"

The River Café has filled up a bit, and people are staring, though Björk is oblivious to the attention. She plops back down in her chair, sits on her hands, and rocks back and forth a couple of times.

Winning, she says, with a fiendish little grin, was a "Massive bonus, like England had won the World Cup in football and I was the one who scored all the goals."

publié dans Vogue - 01.09.2000

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