Friday, November 13, 2009

Lars Von Trier's MEDEA (1988)

(Originally published on In Review Online as a part of their ambitious look at Lars Von Trier's films "The Genius and Misanthropy of Lars Von Trier." Antichrist, if you dare, opens today in the Twin Cities.)

Unequivocally beautiful and brutal, Medea—Lars Von Trier’s made-for-TV movie freely adapted from a Carl Theodore Dreyer script—was prophetic to the films that would follow from this egocentric visionary. Based on the Greek tragedy from Euripides, Von Trier successfully turns this proto-feminist doctrine into a backhanded credo of female martyrdom and suffering. With barely two features to his name, he not only picks an unfilmed script from one of the greatest directors in the world, but also proclaimed to be in “constant telepathic communication” with Carl Th. Dreyer while filming. Pompous as that may sound, seeing Medea is the first step to believing. Intentionally grainy and slightly overexposed allowing the light to swallow up certain forms, you can almost feel the hand of Dreyer.

Taken from her homeland by her husband Jason, Medea is cast aside when King Creon offers Jason his beautiful young daughter, Glauce. Fearing revenge from the scorned Medea, King Creon orders her exiled. Medea is seen as an oracle in her own country, but is a feared foreign heretic in Greece. Medea, set on revenge, persuades King Creon to give her one more day, for the sake of her children. Dark foreshadowing looms as Medea sends her children to Glauce with a gift that is secretly poisoned. Set upon destroying Jason completely, she further resolves to take the lives of his two heirs, her own two children, in a painful exhibition of filicide.

Von Trier’s laconic interpretation of this classic draws on his powerful and impressionistic mise en scène. The interior scenes are dramatically choreographed sets of chiaroscuro where the shadows in the flickering light play a more prominent role than the characters. Jason and Glauce’s newlywed chamber is completely housed in a maze of white cloth, dramatically backlit so silhouettes float back and forth. When Glauce tells Jason that she will not sleep with him until Medea is no longer in the country, Jason is forced to lie next to the shadow of Glauce that is cast on the translucent fabric that separates them. The exterior shots, some perhaps set pieces as well, glow with an unearthly light. The most notable and surreal is when King Creon goes to Medea to tell her she must leave the country. Medea is wading though knee-deep water of a swamp methodically gathering seeds from the plants growing above the water. The fog literally blankets the screen as Medea, the King and his servants fade in and out of view. The entire 75 minutes is filled with charged moments of sharp visual elegance. Every composition is specific, theatrically illustrating every character.

Medea is a very measured feminist doctrine, portraying Medea as equal parts demon and suffragist. Medea ponders aloud, “Why must women bear so much? Wordlessly submissive in body and deed. What rights have women?” And for a brief moment, it seems the film might actually be concerned with these questions. A woman’s right to revenge, however, supersedes, as Medea’s first victim (or martyr, depending on how you look at it) is none other than one of these women without rights. Dressed in a full-length black dress and black hat that fits tightly over her head concealing her hair, Medea has the look of a somber widow. More handsome than beautiful, Medea, as Lars Von Trier has depicted her, is the antithesis of atypical femininity. Glauce’s power, on the other hand, is in her beauty, innocence and youth—all attributes that Medea has lost touch of.

Medea eventually flees. Having successfully poisoned Glauce and murdered her own children, Medea leaves Jason in a state of madness. The camera is trained on Medea and her emotionless face, not so much in judgment than in observation, as she sits at the front of a wooden ship. As the sail is dropped, it briefly flaps in front of the camera, obscuring Medea from the screen. When the curtain pulls back, it reveals Medea, as we have never seen her before: hat off with her long hair falling over her shoulders and her emotions completely exposing her vulnerability. Von Trier makes the most of drawing out the most painful scenes in Medea which is why the suddenness of seeing Medea, sobbing and feminized, comes as such a shock. Hints of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and even Antichrists are contained not only in this scene but also throughout Medea. Thanks to the ancient Greeks and Carl Theodore Dreyer, Lars Von Trier found some perfect food for fonder, sunk in his teeth and has never let go.

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