Blog Directory CineVerse: Tree-mendous reimagining of a fairy tale

Tree-mendous reimagining of a fairy tale

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Pop singer Bjork is known for more than her outlandish attire (remember that outrageous swan dress she wore at the 2001 Academy Awards?) and edgy 1990s music videos. Years earlier, she also established herself as a formidable actress, as evidenced by her performance in The Juniper Tree, a lesser-known indie darling from 1990. That was last week’s spotlight film for CineVerse, which fostered a robust conversation about the merits and misses of this movie (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here), as summarized below.

What struck you as different, unanticipated, thought-provoking, or impressive about The Juniper Tree?

  • Pop stars can act. The casting of Bjork, while seemingly a curious one (and consider that she was not a well-known musician yet when this was filmed), is an inspired one that pays off. Her Margit is believable as a haunted, compassionate, perceptive stray soul.
  • The visuals are exceptional. Black-and-white is the perfect palette to depict this medieval adaptation of a fairytale, and the decision to shoot throughout South Iceland – a location known for its natural scenic beauty, as popularized in recent films like Captain America, The Tree of Life, and The Fate of the Furious – proves ideal.
  • The film is imbued with a surrealistic, lyrical quality that plays not like a plot-driven movie but more like visual poetry (recall, too, the citing of a T.S. Eliot poem in the prologue). The infrequent dialogue, lack of character development and narrative exposition, and absence of closure or explanation of meaning force us to pay more attention to the imagery, sounds, and negative space (topography that would otherwise be filled with more people, buildings, and action).
  • In this story, we are meant to take the witchcraft and supernatural elements literally, just as you would if told a bedtime fairytale.
    • However, director Nietzchka Keene said in an interview that she wasn’t intending to make a statement about witchcraft, and the movie doesn’t suggest that the spells truly work.
    • Blogger Dan Willard wrote: “She feels that many who were accused of witchcraft in the early 17th century were merely practicing folk medicine. The sisters use the only knowledge they have in an effort to control an environment in which they are extremely vulnerable. Keene was more interested in creating a fairy tale world and a mood of melancholic loneliness which is part of the reason she chose to shoot in black and white on bleak locations.”
  • This is an attempt at a revisionist fairytale in which the wicked stepmother character is reimagined or at least presented from her point of view, as well as the POV of another important female character (her sister Margit).
    • Film Comment writer Mark Asch wrote: “Keene is doing the right kind of critical revisionism, adding rather than subtracting—reframing the uncanny, contorted alien logic of folktales within a politically updated dynamic, offering her own interpretation of an old story while honoring its lingering richness.”

Major themes

  • Resourcefulness is required to survive in a harsh world. This feminist retelling of a Grimm Brothers fairy tale about a wicked stepmother portrays that character in a more sympathetic light, especially considering that her mother was stoned and burned as a witch and she and her sister Margit were forced to flee and go into hiding. Katla uses witchcraft to keep her and Margit safe and secure.
  • Females are powerful and not to be underestimated. The fact that Katla and Margit apparently have supernatural abilities in this story suggests that women are special, possessing agency, powerful talents, and ingenuity that can help them survive and thrive in a patriarchal-controlled world.
  • The power of love and memory to transcend death. Margit’s ability to see visions of and communicate with her dead mother speaks to the strong bond between mother and child and our collective human struggle to overcome grief, understand mortality, and accept the possibility of an afterlife. Margit also interprets the appearance of a raven as an embodiment of the surviving spirit of the dead boy Jonas, whom she has also not forgotten.
  • Conflicting loyalties and the “challenges faced by blended families,” according to Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips.
  • Rebirth and reincarnation

Similar works

  • The Seventh Seal and other films by Ingmar Bergman
  • The Witch
  • The Strange Case of Angelica
  • The Secret of Roan Inish
  • Into the Woods
  • The Brothers Grimm
  • I Married a Witch
  • Wicked Stepmother
  • The Crucible
  • Wendy
  • The Song of Bernadette

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