NEW YORK (ABCNews.com) — Picture a greasy factory, filled with the usual sweaty workers, moving machinery … and an energetic group of chorus girls.
A glitzy musical is the sort of surprise event that can happen inside a dingy mill if you're living in a world created by director Lars Von Trier. His new film, Dancer in the Dark, is a modern-day musical mixing fantasy with reality and has fast become a favorite on the international festival circuit. It took the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and opens the New York Film Festival today, with a limited theatrical release set for October.
The workers in the rural American town depicted happen to be French actress Catherine Deneuve and Icelandic singer Björk in her acting debut.
The acting gig came as a surprise opportunity for Björk, who got her start with the Sugarcubes in the 1980s and has since established a solo career using her expressive and piercing singing style. She was initially hired just to score the film, but soon became its star. The experience, she says, was something akin to "jumping off a cliff."
But taking the plunge into acting worked out fine for Björk, who picked up the Best Actress award at Cannes.
She spent a year writing the musical score for Dancer in the Dark, which eventually formed the basis of her new CD, Selmasongs. During that time, she found herself increasingly drawn to the lead character of Selma, an imaginative Czech immigrant who is going blind but working tirelessly to make enough money for an operation so her son will not suffer the same fate.
Björk credits Von Trier with convincing her to play this character, with whom she formed a sort of kinship.
"I felt like defending her; I think I'm very innocent as an actress, naive? The only way I could to do this was from the love of this girl," Björk said at a Lincoln Center news conference with her fellow cast members.
Selma smiles throughout her hardship, escaping reality while finding music in the repetitive sounds of the factory machines and picturing herself in big Hollywood musicals.
Björk met with a blind man to prepare for the role, but she ultimately relied on her own instincts.
"Seventy percent of me is audio-driven," said the singer, who believes visual aesthetics are too often the focus of art. "I think it was about time that the other senses were celebrated," she said.
Casting Björk was just one of the unusual choices made by Von Trier, who wrote the script and doubled as cameraman, shooting entirely on digital video. He constructed an odd contraption to suspend the camera over his head, resulting in shaky jump cuts, at times reminiscent of home video.
Cast members say they were encouraged to improvise the scenes while working from the script, not knowing what would happen on a given day.
"Probably the only thing that was rehearsed was the musical numbers," said David Morse, who plays a policeman and Björk's landlord in the film.
He describes Von Trier as having "reverence for chaos … [We] would begin in one place, and suddenly, you're down the street."
Deneuve also offered praises for Von Trier, saying there are not many filmmakers she would trust with this unusual sort of production style. She was equally enamored of Björk, and offered up occasional acting tips to the novice actress.
"I kept asking, 'Is it supposed to be this way? … It feels a bit funny,'" said Björk. Deneuve plays Selma's devoted friend, who is determined to help the immigrant stay out of trouble as she works to secure her son's future. The French icon says she felt more like a friend than a mother figure to Björk and was happy to help her through her first acting experience.
"It was very interesting to work with someone so strong and open," said Deneuve.
And that style could provide bigger stardom for Björk as an actress if she follows in the footsteps of Hilary Swank, whose film Boys Don't Cry also debuted at the New York Film Festival last year. Swank went on to win an Oscar.
The Icelander, however, is still a long way from thinking Hollywood.
Asked how she would respond to an Oscar nod à la Swank, she simply replied, "Who's Hilary Swank?"