Danish director Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, and the very eerie The Kingdom) directed Medea for Danish television in 1988. The script was adapted by Carl Theodor Dreyer, but we are told at the beginning that the script was never fully realized, so what was to follow was more of a best attempt than it was at interpretation.
If you don’t know Greek mythology enough to know who Medea is, then this review will be a major plot spoiler. I suggest you use Wikipedia or other service to get the quick outline. I provide it below for context, but it also gives the end away; it is a foregone conclusion so including it spoils nothing; in fact, it is required.
In Greek mythology, Medea helped Jason get the Golden Fleece. After this, Jason dumps Medea—who is already far from home—for Glauce, the king’s daughter. The king exiles Medea and her two sons. Medea is the avatar of revenge (to mix religions). There are slightly different versions of how the betrothed and her father are poisoned. In the von Trier version, the wedding crown’s pinnacles are covered in poison. Glauce and her father both prick themselves on the pinnacles and are killed. Then Medea kills both sons so Jason is left with nothing in the end.
This version seems to be set in a coastal area during the 13th century or there about, a time before the plagues began to destroy Europe (this is really a gut feeling based on costume than any hard data). The story picks up after Medea (Kirsten Olesen) has been jilted but just before her exile. Ms. Oleson spends nearly all of her time in a black dress and a black hair cover both of which appear to be made of scales. Jason (Udo Keir) spends his time in chain mail and is always smudged with dirt. The only one who seems to be free of this somewhat gross earthiness is Glauce (Ludmilla Gilnska). The symbolism is obvious; despite this, though it never seems heavy handed. I think most of this is due to the multiple layers of symbolism throughout.
The dialog is as sparse as the land is monotonous. Much time is spent in contemplation and most of that with a very stony face by all involved, save Glauce—she is the very small counterbalance to a demented story no matter how it is told.
The most consistent imagery is of the four elements with two added. Water and wind are everywhere. I think the main reason for this is that they are the most unpredictable and unstable of the four (the most significant use of wind is probably produced by a helicopter: Jason finds his sons hanging from a tree and crumbles to the ground where the grass is blowing away from him as if even the elements have abandoned him). This film is intended to make you feel damp and grimy.
Mist (a water element that you can argue is also a child of wind) plays an extremely important role both as a metaphor and a special effect. Obviously mist shrouds. People approaching only begin to come into focus far closer than they would without mist, again, obviously. Because the story is already known, the mist doesn’t hide the story, but it does help frame it as something we would rather not see as opposed to some way to unfold a secret plot. The special effect is when it appears that a character “in the mist” comes out of the backdrop to enter the main scene. There are many ways to look at this. I can hazard several guesses, but this is something that needs to be seen rather than described.
Earth is the most stable, but even in the bogs it is sublimated into something less than reliable. Still, not only is it mostly firm, it shows on the faces of everyone but the princess (and she is unintentionally smudged early on when Jason lovingly touches her jaw).
Fire is the rarest which would tend to set it up as the most important. Of the four, this is true. Medea, a mistress of “evil arts,” makes the poison by firelight and determines that she must kill both of her sons in order to gain her full revenge. Again, this is obvious, but again, this isn’t heavy handed.
Before I get to the other two controlling symbols, I want to cover why the obvious isn’t heavy handed. This piece is just over an hour long and there isn’t much in the way of dialog. Even a fairly well informed cineaste would look for some meaning in the pauses between words. If the Medea story were not generally known, I think these silences wouldn’t be filled with anything but the sound of wind and water. But knowing the story, the viewer knows that the pauses are not pregnant but poisonous. The story is moving to an inevitable end that will be horrifying. These controlling metaphors give us something to hold on to in these quasi-meditative states.
Shadow and death are the two “new” fundamental elements. Huge portions of Medea are filmed in very low lighting making it very grainy. But even in the relatively bright moments, each major character has her or his shadow in the scene. This is particularly true of the women (there is a moment where Jason, saying good bye to Medea, is maddened by her comments to the point where he says that if men could create children, there would be no need for women). Medea’s and Glauce’s shadows then take on a second meaning.
I have always been a fan of Medea—I won’t say I admire her, but giving a man what he deserved in a time when that was impossible . . . what stops her from being tragic or even sympathetic is of course her murdering both of her sons. Mr. von Trier handles the shadows here masterfully. Jason has little shadow where the women’s are significant. Jason is simple, even simplistic, but the women have far more to them than even a suspicious man would understand.
The shadows play a hugely important role as Glauce pricks herself (we never see her or her father die). A mad flock of birds fly past the window casting epileptic shadows on the wall. This is where death becomes the final element.
The one time that shadow doesn’t play a role is the final murders. The younger of the sons struggles before she lets him fall. The older (and this is where things get gut wrenching) puts the noose around his own neck while Medea holds him up. What do you do at a moment like this? Medea is crying and her oldest child is assisting in his own murder. This isn’t a situation likely to happen but being feeling creatures, we really have no option but to react to it. It pulls towards and pushes away in equal measure at the same time. Of course Medea is entirely in the wrong and the brilliance here is the way this moment is framed. If she were totally heartless such that she would just poison them and be done with it, there would be no pathos. Instead she picks an intimate and horrible mode of death. Add to this that one of her sons helps her and the emotional situation becomes as difficult to handle as the tide and wind coming off of it.
The film is neither for the faint of heart. Nor is it for someone who needs constant dialog or action. The movie is a meditation on infidelity, heartlessness, evil, revenge, murder, and disintegration. There isn’t a happy moment in it. Therefore, it’s audience will be unfortunately smaller than its quality would demand.
Other Lars von Trier reviews:
Element of Crime
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