Icelandic pop singer Björk sent shock waves through the industry over the weekend when she posted on her Facebook page that she was sexually harassed by an unnamed Danish film director, saying that she was inspired by the flood of allegations against Harvey Weinstein to share her story.
Björk has only played the lead in one film, 2000’s Dancer in the Dark. It was directed by Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier. It’s not hard to read between the lines.
Von Trier, speaking to the Danish publication Jyllands-Posten, said that Björk’s claims, which included that the unnamed director “sulked and punished me” and “framed [me] as the difficult one,” were not about him. “That was not the case,” he said. “But that we were definitely not friends, that’s a fact.”
The fact that it seemed fairly obvious that Björk was referring to Von Trier in her original post makes it all the more shocking that the director would deny what she said about him. Especially at a time when the systematic dismissal and discrediting of actresses who claim abuse and harassment is in the zeitgeist.
It seems that Björk was similarly aghast, because on Tuesday she penned a second Facebook post, this one inspired by the #MeToo movement in which women came forward to detail their experience with sexual assault and harassment. And in this post, she makes it all but certain that she was referring to Lars Von Trier.
Björk details, in a numbered list, the encounters she had with the still-unnamed Danish director that she describes as sexual harassment. She talks about how the director would wrap his arms around her and stroke her in front of the entire crew, and how he threw a tantrum that shut down production when she asked him to stop.
She talks about how he would whisper graphic sexual come-ons in her ear, and threatened to climb from his room’s balcony to hers in the middle of the night “with a clear sexual intention.”
But key in identifying Von Trier is her recounting how the director and his producer would plant stories about her being difficult in the press in order to discredit her. “This matches beautifully the Weinstein methods and bullying,” she wrote.
The one specific detail tying her experiences to the Dancer in the Dark production is her claim that, despite what was said about her in the press, “I have never eaten a shirt. Not sure that is even possible.”
Back in 2000, reports of Von Trier’s on-set rows with the singer lit up the industry tabloids, to the point that Björk claimed the experience was so unpleasant she never wanted to act again. (She’d later clarify that she never wanted to act, but made one exception for that film.)
There was one anecdote about the blow-ups that has lasted throughout the years, and is often used to either typify Björk’s notorious oddness or condemn her as a hothead artist: a report that she had ripped up a blouse she did not want to wear in a scene and ate it while storming off set.
It’s such a specific legend and one so famously tied to the Dancer in the Dark production that Björk is effectively ensuring that no one makes any mistake about exactly which director she is referring to.
When Björk’s initial Facebook post published, it was met with, upsettingly, a similar attitude to the one that met the Weinstein allegations: Von Trier’s behavior was also an open secret.
It is astonishingly rare for a director and star to be as openly antagonistic on a film’s press tour as Björk and Von Trier were during Dancer in the Dark. At one point, she accused him of “soul robbery.”
"You can take quite sexist film directors like Woody Allen or Stanley Kubrick," she said, "and still they are the ones 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 (with) soul, and he envies them and hates them for it. So he has to destroy them during the filming, and hide the evidence."
But Von Trier’s behavior wasn’t exclusive to his relationship with Björk, though the other actors who have worked with him and are the subjects of reports of his bullish behavior have not accused him of sexual harassment.
More, again there is this idea that that’s simply what you get when you work with Von Trier. An excuse for the artist. Another version of “That’s just Harvey.” As Matthew Sweet wrote in 2004 for The Independent, “Most actors know that working with the maverick Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier means they may be required to suffer for their art… Nicole Kidman grinned and bore the humiliations she suffered at his hands—but walked out of the cinema when she saw the results.”
Von Trier’s work invites conversation about misogyny, and that’s sort of the point. As The New York Times wrote in 2014, “A typical von Trier heroine might be brutalized by a boatload of sailors (Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves); she might be chained up and raped by the inhabitants of an allegorical town (Nicole Kidman in Dogville); or she might mutilate her own genitalia and others’ (Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist).”
But outside of the art itself, it’s the question of the making of the art—and the artist’s practices—that merit the most scrutiny.
The degree to which he put Watson through the ringer for Breaking the Waves, his first international success, “nurtured his reputation for gleeful directorial cruelty,” wrote Sweet.
Kidman has always alternated between praising the director’s artistic sensibility and recounting the horror of production. Perhaps the proof of her true feelings was how she reneged on a promise to star in Manderlay, the sequel to Dogville, after having reportedly endured hours-long screaming matches with Von Trier in the woods, where he would walk her out of earshot of the rest of production.
And it’s not just the women.
John C. Reilly walked off the set of Manderlay after Von Trier asked him to kill a donkey in a scene.
Paul Bettany, who co-starred in Dogville, called the shoot “eight enormously long weeks in the most depressing place I have ever been in my life.” He reportedly was so dismayed to learn that his hotel room abutted Von Trier’s that he tried to drag his bed away from the wall, unable to stomach sleeping so close to the filmmaker. The bed was bolted to the floor.
There are plenty of actors who praise their experience with Von Trier. But that’s not the issue here. Björk has often spoken out, advocating against the media’s sexist treatment of women and refusal to believe them when they come forward—somehow finding a way to excuse men’s behavior and discredit women.
She is alleging that 12 years ago, Von Trier and his producer fabricated stories about her to combat her own accusations against them. Now they’re doing it again.
Producer Peter Aalbek Jensen, who produced Dancer in the Dark, also spoke out in Von Trier’s defense after Björk’s initial Facebook post. “As far as I remember we were the victims. That woman was stronger than both Lars von Trier and me and our company put together. She dictated everything and was about to close a movie of 100m kroner [$16m],” he said.
“We were the victims.” Reread Björk’s detailing of harassment, and then reread that sentence. Anyone wondering how a reign of terror like Harvey Weinstein’s could last so long? That attitude is the reason why.