Lars von Trier's Medea: Tragically Neglected
Written: Apr 23, 2003 (Updated Apr 23, 2003)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Ravishing style; assured direction; a resurrected Dreyer screenplay; acting; score; Greek tragedy
Cons:Possibly not for all tastes (infanticide). But hey, this is Euripides. And the Daily News.
The Bottom Line: Ancient Greek tragedy (Medea) filtered through a double dose of Danish genius-- Carl Theodor Dreyer's unrealized script, and von Trier's robust, grainy re-imagining. A searing, memorable experience.
Medea was filmed for Danish television in 1987 by evil genius/enfant terrible Lars von Trier. It retells the Ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides using the script that von Triers compatriot, the legendary Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer had written (with Preben Thomson) for his own adaptation. Dreyer was unable to secure funding for his 1960 project; von Trier pays direct homage to him in the opening credits of Medea, simultaneously embracing and distancing himself from Dreyers long shadow, cast with such films as The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr. (Von Triers text states that, while an homage, his version uses the original script as a point of departure.)
In many ways, the story of Medea is a perfect vehicle for Lars von Trier in that it tells the story of a much-suffering woman. (On that score, Dido, Queen of Carthage, abandoned by Aeneas, seems ideal for a future von Trier adaptation.) The directors films, particularly the Suffering Women (a.k.a. Golden Hearts) Trilogy of Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998) and Dancer In The Dark (2000), center on women who endure unimaginable torments on the road toward martyrdom. Of course, where Bess, Karen and Selma (the respective heroines of the trilogy) are noble, if singlemindedly devoted women, Medea is a cunning witch who murders her two children out of revenge. Nevertheless, in von Triers hands (and with a script shaped by Dreyer, who also portrayed his share of martyred women), Euripides play is stripped of its deus ex machina plot and much of its dialogue to concentrate with ferocious intensity on the misery of the scorned Medea.
The original play is shaped so that the triangle of Medea, Jason, and Jasons new bride, Glauce (daughter of King Creon), is emphasized, all else taking a backseat view to the unfolding, inexorable doom. The nubile Glauce (played by Mette Plum), hardly present in the original, is a key figure here, often seen naked in her pre and post-nuptial scenes with Jason (von Trier regular, Udo Kier). Glauce encourages Jason to send Medea (Kirsten Olesen) and her children into exile, and King Creon, with no resistance from Jason, seeks to enforce the decree. Hewing closer to the original, the movies treatment of Medeas revenge is central; she poisons her wedding crown and offers it as a gift, borne by her children, to Glauce. When Glauce (and King Creon, scratched by the thorny crown) die, Jason furiously seeks out Medea, only to discover that she has hanged their children. He goes mad, kills himself, and Medea sets sail for exile.
Von Triers adaptation, shot on video, is as much an assured exercise in style as it is an inventive retelling of the classic story. The movie has the look of a silent film (its spare script and crude, retro titles enhancing the effect). The video is exposed and manipulated such that color is all but washed out (save for key scenes, where saturated blue and red amplify Medeas emotional crescendo); the images that remain, shot on forbidding beaches and fields of Denmark (for exteriors) and in catacombs and abandoned castles (for interiors) seem to be disintegrating before our eyes. Extremes of background tone (mostly white, black, gray and sepia) swallow the moving subjects (people, a boat, horses) in many scenes, so that when objects stray further from the camera, they become subsumed into the background. The effect further flattens the depth of field associated with video so that it seems at times we are witnessing the action on a slide under a microscope. The numerous close-ups and superimpositions add to our sense of watching a tragedy unfold immediately before our eyes.
Von Trier paces the narrative to build gradually toward its shocking climax; despite the mere 77 minutes running time, there are long stretches in the film in which characters silently brood, roam, and in some cases, watch one another from impossible distances. When Jason and Glauce perform their nuptial rites (a scene using shadow play and silhouette to awesome effect), adjacent shots of Medea in her hovel, growing increasingly mad, suggest that she is magically aware of the betrayal as it happens. Similarly, Jason stares out the window with a look of muted terror as Medea prepares her poisoned gift for Glauce. Even the psychic space of the characters, then, is a claustrophobic room in which no thoughts are totally private.
The director is daring as much with what he chooses to show as not to show. For example, we do not see Glauce in her death throes; instead, in one of the movies many standout tableaux, a horse who has been pricked by the crown storms out of the stables and runs full tilt on the beach in a panic. As the camera lifts, the wild horse stumbles and falls on the sand in a heap; we know that Glauce will suffer as tormented and painful a death and must use our imagination to supply the grisly details. Conversely, and in an idiosyncratic and brilliant twist, von Trier refuses to blink in the killing of the children, the older one of which even assists his mother with the nooses and with securing his younger brother. Medea, filled with palpable angst, ambivalence and determination, almost fights with herself while carrying out the most heinous of acts. The innocent yet knowing behavior of the elder boy curiously enhances the awfulness of the scene; he is a willing participant (unlike the biblical Isaac) in his own ritual slaughter, and the insane selfishness of Medea is driven home all the more clearly.
The director, infamous for his emotionally manipulative, searing melodramas that seem cannily aware of their curious mix of sincerity and archness, in Medea seems content to let the powerful drama unfold with minimal self-conscious waving to the audience. He is more mature, stylistically audacious and sincere than in most of his work since. Though Medea predates von Triers Dogme95 and its famous Vow of Chastity, it nevertheless contains the heart of the movements quest for fresh voices in film making, avant garde choices, and unpredictable dramaturgy. The film has a spareness and leanness that von Trier and fellow Dogme95 author, Thomas Vinterberg were seeking when they crusaded against the technological cul de sac of mainstream cinema and bloated auterism of independent film. Every detail, including the sparsely used but chilling score, combines to achieve an otherworldly effect of a tragic situation that is alien and yet all too uncannily topical and real.
Unfortunately, von Triers Medea has not had an official release in the US. It is available on DVD, though unfortunately not on VHS. I saw the film in New York Citys Screening Room (projected from a DVD, no less), and so my experience was equivalent to the home DVD one, with the exception that a small audience was on hand to savor this neglected masterpiece with me.
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