Release List Reviews Price Search Shop Newsletter Forum DVD Giveaways Blu-Ray/ HD DVD Advertise
DVD Talk
Reviews & Columns
International DVDs
Reviews by Studio
Video Games

Collector Series DVDs
Easter Egg Database
DVD Talk Radio
Feature Articles

Anime Talk
DVD Savant
HD Talk
Horror DVDs
Silent DVD

discussion forum
DVD Talk Forum

DVD Price Search
Customer Service #'s
RCE Info



Facets Video
1988 /color / 1:33 flat full frame / 76 min. / Street Date May 20, 2003 / 29.95
Starring Kirsten Olesen, Udo Kier, Henning Jensen, Baard Owe, Ludmilla Glinska
Cinematography Sejr Brockmann
Film Editor Finnur Sveinsson
Original Music Joachim Holbek
Written by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Preben Thomsen, Lars von Trier from a play by Euripides
Directed by Lars von Trier

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), enjoyed 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 Dreyer's 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.

(no spoiler)

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 utterly destroyed.

(now, spoiler)

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.

(spoiler again)

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, Medea rates:
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?
Sound: Good
Supplements: None
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

Advertise With Us

Review Staff | About DVD Talk | Newsletter Subscribe | Join DVD Talk Forum
Copyright © MH Sub I, LLC dba Internet Brands. | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use

Release List Reviews Price Search Shop SUBSCRIBE Forum DVD Giveaways Blu-Ray/ HD DVD Advertise