Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
Two movies into the work of Danish director Lars von Trier and I admit it’s been something of a rough and tumble adventure. I said going in that von Trier would be an adventure in much artier cinema than I usually cover, and with that comes all the frustrations of early attempts that go too far into one direction or another. Even an auteur (maybe especially an auteur) takes a while to find their stride and fully come into their voice, no matter how promising their early works might be.
Two movies under his belt, von Trier took an admittedly surprisingly stylistic/directorial departure for his next film. It’s the kind of diversion, however, that ultimately helps polish just what a director can bring. But that’s enough dancing around the movie, let’s dive right into it full tilt.
If you’ve never read Euripides, I feel having a working summation of the classic play from which this movie is adapted is relatively important, because everything I have to talk about today mostly has to do with how and why the choices von Trier made reflect his own growing proclivities. So I’m going to try to be brief, and talk about the play in as condensed a version as possible, and if you’re brushed up on your Greek tragedies feel free to skip down past the next two paragraphs.
Medea is a play that adapts what happens after the relatively more famous story of Jason and his adventures getting the Golden Fleece. Medea, daughter of a king and granddaught of Helios, helped Jason with his quest and fell in love with him, returning home with him to Corinth. The play picks up some time after this, where Jason has abandoned her and their two children so that he can marry Glauce, the daughter of King Creon. Medea is despondent, obviously, and this is compounded when King Creon conspires to exile her from this new country Jason brought her to. Jason, trying to assuage her, tries to tell her that his marriage is one of convenience, as her people are seen as barbarians by normal Greek society, and that he’ll still keep her around as his mistress after he’s married. As you might expect, this goes over swimmingly.
Medea, having already sacrificed nearly everything for Jason, plots her vengeance. She poisons robes that were a gift from Helios, sending them to the wedding with word of her change of heart and blessing on the wedding. Glauce, unable to resist such an impressive gift, puts on the robes and dies, as does her father Creon when he tries to help her. Medea, no fan of half measures, decides while she’s at it to destroy all of Jason’s legacy on earth, and murders both of their children and deriding Jason for his infidelity before fleeing to Athens with the bodies to give them a proper, honorable burial. The end. Happy times!
Lars von Trier’s adaptation of Medea then makes a lot of sense. Concepts of grief and apocalyptic wrath, of women spurned and a kind of primal feminism that is often misconstrued for actual misogyny? These are all ideas that we will come to again and again in von Trier’s future works. Here they’re expressed, fittingly, in one of the first stories of its type in Western literature. It’s hard to say whether this was von Trier experimenting in a safe place with what would become his later fixations, or whether this movie is what inspired all of that later work, but it’s the clear precursor to a lot of his future films.
More interesting, then, is the circumstances surrounding this choice. The script for Medea isn’t penned (as usual) by von Trier, but instead he’s working off of a script by classic Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, who wrote this particular adaptation of Medea decades ago but never got around to filming it himself. More importantly, von Trier claimed during production that he was in psychic communication with Dreyer to help assist him on the production. The kicker? Dreyer died in 1968. Which just goes to show that sometimes working with the films of an auteur means putting up with their bizarre personal quirks. Not that I mind, really. I don’t care of von Trier got script notes from a ouija board, given how the movie itself turned out.
Medea is a made for TV production, shot on tape and with a scant run time of 76 minutes. Being a made-for-TV production, and this being von Trier, the movie itself is incredibly constrained either by budget or choice, amounting to not much more than foggy wastelands, shadowy corridors and caves, marshlands and shores. Being Danish, it’s also full of casual nudity, making it like the world’s sparsest episode of Game of Thrones. I’m being glib, of course, but there’s a decent amount of overlap between this surprisingly earthy take on high Greek drama and the sort of low-fantasy dirt/sex/death combo of that show. If you like one, you’ll probably find something to like in the other.
Medea is grim, though, and I am not joking about that one bit. von Trier’s adaptation is a fully joyless affair, with Medea (Kirsten Olesen) filling the screen with a sort of stoic despair writ large even in the limited scope. Medea is a complicated character, both sympathetic and monstrous, and von Trier never blinks from showing us both sides. Her situation is sympathetic, and her laments about the fact that as a woman the best she can aspire to is to bear children and keep quiet is earnest. Yet, Medea is as much a villain as a victim, and her feminist appeals don’t extend far enough to solidarity. She never plots to kill Jason (Udo Kier), but instantly wrecks her vengeance upon Glauce.
Glauce herself seems almost an innocent, a woman thrust into a situation of political marriage, well aware of her charms as a young, beautiful bride but dancing the line between manipulative and genuine classical virtue. She’s an ideal Jason chases, always something prettier and better, but she didn’t ask to be entangled in this cycle of death. In one of the more striking scenes in the film, when Jason and her bed together, she’s so concerned about the presence of another woman in his life that she refuses to lay with him. the two of them going to sleep with a cloth between them, her figure projected behind him by flickering candlelight.
In fact, the whole movie looks rather wonderful. Things shot on tape in 1988 will never look ‘good’, but there’s something about the poorer image and modern tape artifacting that contrasts well with the ancient tale. It feels immediate and dirty without resorting to the sorts of post-processing and heavy color-correction that a movie trying for a similar effect would go for today. And the lack of scale (both the 1.33 aspect ratio and the flattening that comes from tape as a medium) lend the whole thing a flat, claustrophobic feel. This intimate human drama plays out like medieval frescoes, figures flat against their backgrounds from a time before perspective.
It feels weird to call a movie like Medea a turning point, because so little of it comes from von Trier himself, but it definitely feels like the director who made this film has much more confidence and feels far less reliant upon tricks and affectation than the director of the prior two movies. Whatever changed in him between then and Medea, it cast a long shadow that we’ll continue to come back to again and again. The reason classics are classics are because within them is a seed that takes root in our minds, be it obsessive artists or simply the cultural consciousness. In this case, it seems like Medea herself wrecked her vengeance so violently that even von Trier was sucked into it, never quite escaping the aftermath.
Trailer time! This one is actually a pretty good look at the kind of tone/visuals we’re dealing with in this movie, which is great considering I feel it’s absolutely the best thing the movie has going for it. I think (don’t quote me) you can find the entire movie on youtube, if that’s your thing. I won’t be linking it, for obvious reasons.