Lars von Trier
Review by Marlin Tyree
Posted on 16 October 2006
Source Facets DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
For in other ways a woman
Is full of fear, defensiveness, dreads the sight of cold
Steel; but when once she is wronged in the matter of love,
No other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood.
—The Medea, Euripides
One of the main challenges of adapting a classic work of literature to film is establishing and maintaining a sense of the present as the narrative unfolds. It was one of the aims of the late filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky who expressed that what often happens when watching a film covering an historical period is that an over-concern with setting can cause a film to resemble a museum piece. The immediacy of what is happening is lost on décor and costume. They may transport us to another time period, but they can also remove the content from relevancy. Luckily, Lars von Trier’s Medea avoids any attempt at ‘adaptation,’ stripping the ancient Greek play to its central conflict and keeping the viewer firmly in the present as he uses the most spare and essential, yet vital and imaginative elements to form the narrative.
Horror, as a genre, can present the greatest opportunity for filmmakers to convey the joy of what I consider to be the purely cinematic. Unencumbered by loyalties to other literary forms, ethics, morality tales or even intelligibility, horror employs the imaginative faculty to its greatest extent because of its lack of formulaic boundaries. It is also terribly permissive of sloppy craftsmanship and scabby conceptualization. It’s not my contention that von Trier deliberately set out to make a horror film with Medea, but given the story, his particular approach and imaginative skill, it was fairly unavoidable. The usual associations aside(the screaming girl, the slow moving ghoul, indiscriminate blood flow), one aspect of horror that is essential, and to which Medea adheres, is that the sole aim of the protagonist inevitably leads to butchery. Whether or not the victim deserves to be killed is irrelevant. In fact, any further consideration of murder, be it motive, the manner of its implementation or any further thematic implication transforms the material into something broader in scope. And horror is chiefly concerned with effect.
Accordingly, much of the scope of Euripides’ tragedy is narrowed in von Trier’s Medea. The story is set in Corinth of ancient Greece, where Medea, her husband, Jason, and their two children are in exile. There is a brief prologue, derived primarily from the Euripides tragedy, describing the events that befall the family before their sojourn to Corinth. In sum, to spite Jason, who becomes betrothed to the daughter of the Cretian king, Medea poisons the daughter, the king and kills the two sons. Textual omissions include the part written for the chorus, which, naturally (the chorus always seems superfluous in a film, though exceptions like Derek Jacobi’s turn as the chorus in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V clearly stand out) is replaced by the succession of images forming the narrative. The justifications for Medea’s wrath, particularly her long soliloquies (which turn up in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s version of Medea, most notably, Maria Callas at her most self-righteous) are also absent. The script was actually written by the late filmmaker Carl Dreyer, who never had an opportunity to complete his version of the film. What’s left is a sublime succession of visual sequences—a kind of visual alchemy that mirrors the sorcery Medea puts into practice. But the film is less concerned with the devices Medea uses to murder her victims than with the places her emotional and psychological state takes her and the viewer.
The portrait of Jason is crucial in eliciting sympathy for Medea in the Euripides tragedy but of little value in von Trier’s film. We’re not asked to sympathize with an abandoned mother of two children as much as we’re asked to empathize with a supernaturally gifted woman who has debased herself in her alliance with, essentially, a scoundrel. The first time we see Medea, she is lying prostrate on the floor of a sandy seabed, which quickly becomes inundated, with the waters of the rising tide. As the water engulfs her she grips the earth with both hands and presumably holds her breath for an interval that seems too long for any mere human to endure. In fact, we almost forget her presence as the camera settles on the rolling surface of the sea, cut by a gray/blue horizon. For a moment we’re left wondering what von Trier is up to as the shot seems to be held for moment or two too long. The repose is suddenly shattered by a heaving Medea who explodes to the surface. This passage is several things at once; a ritual cleansing harkening the Christian baptism and ancient pagan rites; the birth of a primordial rage in a woman clearly gifted in the natural arts and an emotional/psychological orientation for the audience on the character of Medea. When we see Jason, he almost the complete antithesis of the Medea/rebirth image. Ensconced deep in an underground cavern amidst a shallow pool of dark water, a grease and dirt-laden barbarian attempts to wash the grime from his face and beard. His cleansing seems unsuccessful, however, and this impression is re-enforced when, soon after, he caresses his bride-to-be and leaves a conspicuous black stain on her cheek. Their alliance of power and sex is at complete odds with Medea’s ascetic solitude.
Unlike the play (and even Pasolini’s film), which considers Jason in far greater detail (Pasolini, in fact, re-creates Jason’s quest for the golden fleece, which happens prior to the action in Euripides’ play), von Trier’s film is primarily concerned with the emotional trajectory of Medea’s revenge. There are no other serious considerations. When, fairly early in the film, a fearful King Creon comes to banish her from Corinth (suggesting another alternative) she is already gathering the poisons from among the thorns and bushes for her designs. Her journey is an inner self-exorcism, reflected by the images of the natural environment, eliminating all that is corrupt, taking human lives with it. From the opening sequence on the beach to the closing shots of Medea on board a ship bound for her homeland, muted colors, high contrasts and wide angles immerse her in overwhelming natural environments which she is eventually able to master while Jason becomes its hapless victim. Shot in analog, the compositions give a cloudy, sometimes blurred, sometimes dazzling cohesive quality to the film. Most important, shot in this manner, the characters are never apart from their surroundings as everything is given a flat or matted quality — even in shots conveying wide dimensions. The progression of these images is powerful and relentless, though lyric and utterly fascinating to watch. It all culminates, of course, when all of Medea’s victims are dead and her daemon exhumed. Though this 75-minute film is just sampling of some of von Trier’s more extended later features, it’s probably one of his most powerful.