Pop star Björk—who, around 2000, looked like she was about to become movie star Björk before abruptly announcing her retirement from film—has posted a harrowing account of her experiences with an unnamed “Danish director” who allegedly harassed her when they were working together. Björk starred in Danish director Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, a heartbreaking performance that won her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, while the film itself received the Palme d’Or. But despite critical acclaim, Björk retreated from movies after her experience making Dancer in the Dark. On Sunday, in a Facebook post she said was inspired by the women who have been speaking out about Harvey Weinstein, she offered further details about her experiences in the film industry:
it was extremely clear to me when i walked into the actresses profession that my humiliation and role as a lesser sexually harassed being was the norm and set in stone with the director and a staff of dozens who enabled it and encouraged it . i became aware of that it is a universal thing that a director can touch and harass his actresses at will and the institution of film allows it . when i turned the director down repeatedly he sulked and punished me and created for his team an impressive net of illusion where i was framed as the difficult one . because of my strength , my great team and because i had nothing to lose having no ambitions in the acting world , i walked away from it and recovered in a years time.
It wasn’t a secret that Björk and von Trier had a contentious relationship on set, nor was it a secret that she believed he had been emotionally abusive, but the allegation that this unnamed Danish director touched or harassed her, or punished her for refusing his advances, are new. As with many of these stories, however, a brief look at the contemporaneous press in light of her statement sets off all kinds of alarm bells. Björk disappeared from the set for four days in what was described in some accounts as a power play over control of the soundtrack and in others as a nervous breakdown. The Guardian ran a short piece passing along a story that Björk ate part of her costume in the middle of a fight, tempering what looked on its face like a “Björk acting irrationally” story with only a brief acknowledgment that “sources on the film say the rift goes deeper than” a clash between strong artistic personalities. And then there’s this, from an interview with Hollywood.com:
When you’re with Lars on your own, everything’s fine, and then when other people come in the room … it becomes a different story. It’s like the courtroom scene [in the film], where you’re the only one who knows—you and Lars.
Björk directly addressed von Trier’s alleged sexism and cruelty in a message board post on her website that also reads as though it were designed to allude to more than it explicitly said:
i was talking to a friend about it recently and i told him that the thing about making that film that upset me most was how cruel lars is to the woman he is working with. not that i can’t take it, because i’m pretty tough and completely capable of defending myself, but because my ideals of the ultimate creator were shattered. and my friend said “what did you expect? all major directors are ‘sexist’, a maker is not necessarily an expert in human rights or female/male equality!
my answer was that you can take quite sexist film directors like woody allen or stanley kubrick and still they are the one that provide the soul to their movies. in lars von trier’s case it is not so and he knows it. 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. what saves him as an artist, though, is that he is so painfully honest that even though he will manage to cover up his crime in the “real” world (he is a genius to set things up that everybody thinks it is just his female-actress-at-the-moment imagination, that she is just hysterical or pre-menstrual), his films become a documentation of this “soul-robbery.” breaking the waves is the clearest example of that.
In Björk’s case, she had little to lose by walking away from the film world after her horrifying experience: she was already wealthy and powerful in the music industry and had, as she put it, “no ambitions in the acting world.” But as she acknowledges in her post, other actresses don’t have the same advantages. And even if they did: it may be no skin off Björk’s back that she walked away from acting after one role but is there any doubt we’re all poorer for it?
There’s a long tradition in the film world of forgiving exploitative, abusive relationships between directors and actors as “part of the process,” justified after the fact by the power of the art it produces in a way no one would tolerate at, say, a shoe factory. Stipulated: Dancer in the Dark is of more value to humanity than a pair of shoes. But it’s not of more value to humanity than the actual humanity of the people who were employed to work on it. In the past, arguments that art had to be religiously separated from the conditions under which it was produced—see also Blue Is the Warmest Color, Last Tango in Paris, The Birds, The Shining and on and on forever—seemed to be a symptom of caring about art a little too much. Now, however, as fallout from the allegations against Harvey Weinstein reveal a systemic problem with abuse and harassment, that argument is beginning to look more and more like a symptom of not caring enough about other people.
Here is Björk’s complete statement:
Update, Oct. 16: Lars von Trier denies that he abused or harassed Björk during the making of Dancer in the Dark. According to the Hollywood Reporter, von Trier’s assistant has confirmed that the director made the denial to a Danish newspaper.