Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Danish Dogme 95 filmmaker Lars Von Trier has yet to make anything resembling an ordinary movie.
Savant's been impressed by Breaking the Waves (which doesn't work except in a theater),
The Kingdom and
Kingdom 2 quite a bit, and for
the record, couldn't hack the insufferable Element of Crime.
Medea is an art film 100%, a video feature made for Danish television. Casual viewers aren't
going to stick with it, as its visuals are purposely washed out and grainy, with minimal detail.
But unlike many art films, the story is direct and clear. Euripides' Greek horrorshow is played out
in terrible detail that breaks a prime taboo, infanticide.
Upon his return from stealing the Golden Fleece, Jason (Udo Kier) brought back the
woman who helped him, Medea (Kirsten Olesen), and had two children with her. Now, King Kreon
(Henning Jensen) is essentially offering him his kingdom, if he'll marry his daughter Glauce
(Ludmilla Glinska). With the new marriage vows exchanged, Kreon tells Medea to leave the country,
as he doesn't trust her ways with the 'dark arts'. Jason tries to convince Medea that his
abandonment of her is really a good thing. Medea reasons with both, and when that fails humors them
by feigning assent to their wishes; meanwhile she accepts asylum with Aiceus (Baard Owe),
to sail the next day. What dire revenge does Medea have in mind?
Our news media today sells tragedy and misery like cotton candy, making sad crimes with no general
significance, into morbid national pasttimes. Some of the worst repeat the too-frequent scenario of a
mother killing her children. The public is invited to mourn, yes, but mostly to pass judgment on
the pitiful killer. The demon other is clearly identified as clearly being somebody
else. Most people envision perverse punishments to fit the crime.
Carl Theodor Dreyer made films about extreme human behavior, and the meaning of faith. Von Trier's
Breaking the Waves was a fairly successful attempt to recreate the miraculous epiphany of
Ordet. But ten
years before that,
Von Trier adapted an unfilmed screenplay by Dreyer, this sparse and harsh retelling of Medea.
The action is transposed to the cold and clammy marshlands of ancient Denmark, and Jason wears
chainmail, but the story is the same. Medea turned against her family and
country forever, for love of an adventurer-thief from a far off land. She helped Jason escape
with a fabulous treasure. Back in the kingdom of Kreon, he's an important man now; if it weren't
for her, he would never have left her country alive. But Jason considers
his wife an impediment to his career. He walks away from their marriage and his two
sons to become the heir apparent to a throne, with a different, younger woman. And like most men,
he thinks he can get away with it.
Once again, a woman is scorned, betrayed and abandoned by
an ambitious husband, a story repeated
in every culture and every era: Kwaidan, for example.
Women wronged in Greek tragedy live at such an extreme that their emotions approach the
purity of the Gods.
Electra finds a divine madness in
her Hamlet-like search for justice, but nobody can touch Euripides' Medea for all-defining
revenge. Ancient Greeks no doubt debated the story, and I'm sure that there were those who felt
Medea had to be written by a man, as what woman could contemplate killing her own children?
Lars Von Trier's Medea captures some of this elemental purity, as Medea's rage and spite is
so strong, it can't find full expression in words. Faced with her husband's self-serving
rationalizations - "I'm really doing this for you, dear" - Medea doesn't break down or fly into
a rage. It's gone way too far for that. She pretends to Kreon, the king who fears Medea's
knowledge of the 'dark arts', that she's reconciled with the situation. She sets Jason's mind
at ease, making him an unwitting agent of her revenge.
Von Trier illustrates the vendetta in a weirdly-visualized, expressive set of events. Poison
is involved, and the disturbingly real-looking demise of a horse becomes a substitute for the agony of
Medea's victims. A she said, she bears Kreon and his daughter no ill will, but no one asks her if she
feels the same for Jason; they assume she has no options. Medea doesn't agree. Killing herself
won't achieve what she wants and needs; for what Jason has done, killing won't suffice. He must be
Medea doesn't have a sword to do her speaking, like MacDuff. She's already gnashed her teeth
swearing that she wished she were a man, to 'bleed behind a shield instead of giving childbirth'.
The central setpiece, the scene that clearly earned the shocked responses from critics who hailed
Medea, is her killing of her two boys. It's the only way she can hurt their father, to let him
know just how much he is hated, and that he's got another thing coming if he thinks she'll
take this lying down. It's a very disturbing scene, and despite the foundation given for it, it's
hard to believe a mother would go through with it. The older boy helps, and knowing what
his mother wants,
prompts her to 'help him' when his turn comes. A large part of the discomfort is seeing a real
small child 'actor' going through what looks like real suffering - especially the younger tot who
can't be expected to understand what's going on.
For many viewers, the infanticide scene in Medea will be so off-putting, they won't be able
to watch it. The little boy is crying. It's too immediate and too real.
Some critics call Medea a dramatization of the pain of divorce. From the point of view of the
abandoned woman who has defined her life through her love for her husband, the betrayal outweighs any
law of man or God. Traditionally, a woman's children are the center of her life, the reason
for marriage. Should the husband stray, the children are considered a compensation. Medea was royalty
before she married, and Jason's dirty deal has reduced her to a worthless refugee. Her pride is
stronger than her mother's love: Hell hath no fury ...
Von Trier's visuals aren't entirely baffling, as he's clearly using a degraded image to reject the
standard 'pretty-fied' look of 99% of what we see. The screen is washed with unpleasant monochrome
hues, and most of Medea is beyond drab. It looks as if the video image was purposely recorded
with bad contrast, and further manipulated in post to achieve a blasted, grainy, leeched appearance.
Okay, so von Trier needs to distinguish himself. In The Kingdom, and especially in
Breaking the Waves, he makes his audience fight its way through the erratic camerawork to
read his movie. Medea's shots are much more formalized and locked down, reflecting the
static landscape of the setting. There is a very active motif of water and waving seaweed, mingling
visually with the wind-blown grass that becomes the witness to Jason's despair. What start out as
arbitrary compositions, become more and more deliberate and exacting. The murky marshes are thematic
reminders of von Trier's later The Kingdom, a hospital built on just such a guilty mire.
Some subtle visual tricks emerge from the grungy visuals. Video mattes are used to 'key' actors into
different backgrounds, skies, etc., as with Hollywood rear-projection. Von Trier manipulates the
process for legitimate artistic effects. With the degraded image, the mattes are difficult to
detect, and some weird shots sneak up on us.
In one dialogue scene, Medea's sleeping children appear behind her, but they're much too big. In
this visual context, it doesn't look like a cheap mistake, but an hallucination. In another
arresting image, Jason strikes Medea. He's on a background plate matted behind her, and her
recoil is timed with his fist. In this context, the artificiality makes the blow seem more violent.
By the end, Medea is headed for asylum in exile. The waters rise to free her boat from the mud,
nature granting a quiet absolution. We don't see grief, exactly, but instead a grim calm. She
looks ten years older, and her eyes speak for her scalded mind. She does indeed look like those
women on television, paraded in court for us to examine. In this unpleasant art film, von Trier
gives us the full experience of Greek Tragedy.
Udo Kier drops his perverse persona to play Jason as a thinner-looking Oliver Reed type. Kirsten
Olesen holds the center as Medea, and it is her face that we read to find meaning in the horrors of
the story. She plays it as a fascinating paradox, expressing much, telegraphing almost nothing.
Baard Owe, as the foreigner who gives Medea asylum, will be familiar to fans of The Kingdom.
Facets Video's DVD of Medea is probably a good rendering of the Danish television broadcast. The
original was presumbably of such purposely degraded quality, it doubtless had to be accompanied by
disclaimers saying 'this
is how this is meant to look' when telecast; I wouldn't be surprised if von Trier went to the station
himself to restrain the engineers from trying to correct it. I honestly cannot tell if the
video master used was of the best quality, or if more grunge wasn't added to it during a PAL to NTSC
conversion, or if the compression is wholly adequate. You either accept the way this picture looks
or you don't. By the halfway point, I was hooked.
The Danish dialogue is translated in English subs that are not removable. There are no extras, and
the brief liner notes on the back come right out with the infanticide theme, a good choice. 1
The chilling logo text block, reproduced above, probably isn't a big enough hint. Not a picture
for people who don't know what they're in for, no way. Probably one person in 500
knows who Medea is, and this Medea is no sequel for Jason and the Argonauts.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good, but tough sledding for the less than adventurous or the impatient
Video: Indeterminate. Will von Trier someday release a version that looks
like The Quiet Man?
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May, 2003
1. I prepared promos for
a Canadian film from the 90s called Kissed. The fact that I didn't care for it was beside
the point, as its subject matter, kinky necrophilia and asphyxiation sex, was so off-putting,
my supervisor didn't want to see it and could barely watch my work - which of course made it look
much milder. Whenever I've advertised films of dubious social value, I've told myself that if I
clearly express what the movie's about, then people will be warned what they're getting into. It felt honest,
for instance, to put the inane, fascist dialogue in Cannon's 'action' films right into their trailers
and TV spots. I had to make Kissed look benign (nobody at the studio would even discuss
the subject matter), which made me feel morally dirty.
Conversely, the same taboo-avoiding
semi-ignorance at studios surely is a factor in keeping exceptional and worthy transgressive films,
like Ken Russell's The Devils, from seeing the light of DVD.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson