A filmmaking provocateur and all-round contrarian, there are few contemporary directors with the same artistic weight on and off the silver screen as the controversial Danish creative, Lars von Trier. Forcing the attention of the art world whenever he releases a new project, von Trier is responsible for some of the finest (and most distressing) independent films of the modern century, including Dogville, Antichrist and Melancholia.
Whilst he certainly still carries great cinematic quality, it was von Trier’s earlier films that arguably broke more artistic ground, with the likes of Breaking the Waves, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark each having a profound, existential view of the contemporary world. Winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, as well as the award for Best Leading Actress, Dancer in the Dark is both his most celebrated and divisive piece of work, starring Icelandic superstar, Björk in the lead role.
A truly devastating drama, musical hybrid, von Trier’s peculiar film released at the turn of the new millennium is an imaginative and excruciating watch, following a girl from Eastern Europe who travels to the promise of the USA with her son. Elevating the film into the realms of profound magical realism, Björk’s performance in the film is hypnotising, with the actor seemingly occupying an entirely different dimension of reality.
Whilst her performance was celebrated across the world of cinema, on the set of the film her method-style of acting caused significant friction between herself and the director who engaged in a passionate feud with each other. Declaring that she would never make another movie again, Björk turned her back on the project following its release, with von Trier telling GQ, “It was a problem that both of us, normally with things, we got it our way, where we decided as a dictator over a product. She was used to doing that and I was used to doing that”.
Problems with their relationship started early on in the project when Björk refused to show up to the set for several days, with her absence costing the production a considerable amount of money. As Lars von Trier explicitly recalls, “We knew that her and her people would always win because they didn’t care. They didn’t give a shit,” even going so far as to state, “It was like dealing with terrorists”.
On one particularly anger-fuelled morning, the director recalls that Björk “spat on the ground” to greet him, refusing to talk to the filmmaker for several hours. Once Björk’s assistant finally told von Trier that she was ready to talk to him, the director went to her and theatrically lashed out, stating, “I took a chair and there was a big monitor right beside her and I just smashed it. For no reason”.
Isolated from the behind-the-scenes feud and Björk’s performance is extraordinarily breathtaking, with the director believing her behaviour on set spilt over from the toll of her physical and emotional on-screen performance. As von Trier recalls, “The problem with Björk, of course, was that when she was really, really sad in the film, she was sad for real”.
Demanding emotional and physical toil from each and every one of his lead actors, Lars von Trier is a notoriously tricky filmmaker to work with, and Björk has talked little of the experience of collaborating with the director. Having only once defined her time working on the set of Dancer in the Dark, the Icelandic singer-songwriter explained, “He needs a female to provide his work soul. And he envies them and hates them for it. So he has to destroy them during the filming. And hide the evidence”.
With both Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst having reported similarly suffering on the sets of his films, there’s certainly ground to Björk’s comments, particularly after, in light of the recent #MeToo movement, the singer-songwriter took to social to recall her experience with a certain Danish filmmaker.
Listing several encounters with the unnamed Danish filmmaker, Björk recalls receiving, “Unwanted whispered sexual offers from him with graphic descriptions” as well as a threat from the director that he would “climb from his room’s balcony over to mine in the middle of the night with a clear sexual intention”. Denying the allegations, von Trier told the Danish daily paper Jyllands-Posten, “That was not the case. But that we were definitely not friends, that’s a fact”.
Clashing two powerful personalities, it’s surprising that the making of Dancer in the Dark led to such an extraordinary film, with the behind-the-scenes suffering of the cast and crew becoming a notorious behind-the-scenes scandal.