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Before he tackled small-town revenge in the avant-garde Dogville, provoked walkouts with the disturbing Antichrist, charted the end of the world in Melancholia, investigated graphic sex in the four-hour opus Nymphomaniac and ultimately earned persona non grata status for controversial Hitler comments at a Cannes press conference, Lars von Trier hit the French Riviera with a darkly ambitious musical called Dancer in the Dark.
For the story of a female factory worker who is losing her eyesight while fighting to save her son from the same fate, and at the same time, finding herself frequently adrift in bouts of music-fueled fantasies, the button-pushing auteur born in Kongens Lyngby, Denmark, drafted Icelandic phenomenon Bjork.
The international pop superstar had never acted before (and hasn’t since), and their collaboration was no waltz in the park, according to both parties. Production proved to be painful for the first-time actress, both because of von Trier’s relentless directing style and the film’s unique technical challenges. (More than 100 digital cameras were used at a time to snag shots of musical sequences, and a final cut didn’t come until 24 hours before the Cannes debut.)
But there they were, hand in hand, inside the Palais des Festivals for the film’s world premiere, May 17, 2000. It was a rare moment of harmony between Bjork — in a dress designed by Marjan Pejoski that one fashion website would later describe as a “cotton candy Chinese lantern-shaped creation” — and her notoriously demanding director.
Reaction to the film was deeply divided. Critics either heralded it as a masterpiece or derided it as an experimental mess, with THR calling it “bold but only partially successful.”
Perhaps because of such reviews, the Cannes crowd seemed genuinely shocked when Dancer in the Dark earned the Palme d’Or and Bjork won best actress. THR noted that her acceptance speech was “laconic and low-key.” (She even skipped the obligatory postpremiere press conference.)
But von Trier let himself get emotional in his speech, in which he extended an olive branch to his leading lady. “Thank you very much, Bjork,” he said. “I know she doesn’t believe it, but if you ever meet her, tell her I love her very much.”
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