Medea (1988)


director/writer: Lars; 1987-Denmark-in Danish with English subtitles)

director/writer: Lars von Trier; screenwriters: from Carl Theodor Dreyer/Preben Thomsen; cinematography: Sejr Brockmann; editor: Finnur Sveinsson; music: Joachim Holbek;;cast: Vera Gebuhr (Aeldre Terne), Ludmilla Glinska (Glauce), Solbjørg Højfeldt (Ammen), Henning Jensen (Creon), Udo Kier (Jason), Kirsten Olesen (Medea), Baard Owe (Aiceus); Runtime: 75; Facets; 1988-Denmark-in Danish with English subtitles)

“In one startling scene, it appeared to me as if I was looking at Van Gogh’s wheatfields with the wind swirling forcefully in and out of the fields.”


Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

So what if the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s screenplay written with Preben Thomsen in the mid-60s is not adhered to! Dreyer died in 1968, unable to get funding for the film. What counts is what von Trier has done with the film he has inherited from Dreyer. I don’t care about his self-promotional schemes that have turned many people off him, as he audaciously said that he communed with the spirits of Dreyer and those spirits approved of what he is doing to change this made for Danish TV film. The question is, how good is this film.

Medea (Kirsten) has been dumped by her husband, Jason (Udo), for a younger and more attractive woman, Glauce (Ludmilla), whose father is King Creon (Henning). Jason comes across as a modern male chauvinist-pig, someone with cold feelings, whose ambitious nature rules his life. Medea is the scorned woman, the intuitive one, the one capable of performing black magic. When told by King Creon that she must leave the country with her two sons or else, she plots her revenge. And she gets her wish for revenge by sweet talking Jason into accepting her wedding gift for his bride, a queen’s crown that she has dabbed with poison spikes hoping that the bride will prick herself on it. Playing on Jason’s paternal instincts she gets him to believe that she wants him to keep the kids because she was wrong and he was right, now that she has had time to think it over. She talks him into taking her gift to soften up his bride and then he will be able to ask her father’s permission for the kids to remain with him and his new bride, and she would be content to leave the country knowing that her children will be properly cared for.

The dialogue is sparse. The open air scenerio is intense. In one startling scene, it appeared to me as if I was looking at Van Gogh’s wheatfields with the wind swirling forcefully in and out of the fields. There was a mystical feel in the mise-en-scene, as tragedy was in the air. The children were running through the fields playing like children do, but stopping at times to look into the camera with perplexed expressions as the wind runs its invisible fingers across their blond hair.

It’s a tragedy…because Medea takes the children to the tree to hang them even though she loves them both. And when the younger one runs away, the older one brings him back to her, and she hangs the younger one. She then proceeds to carry out the death of the older, more obedient son. He is the one she dearly loves as much as she loves anyone in this world.

All that is left for us to see is the final fadeout shot with the disbelieving and enfeebled Jason. He is left with a poisoned father-in-law and bride, and the dead children he would have abandoned or kept, whatever the circumstances dictated. As a result he has lost his will to live, and we see him moaning in pain as he takes his life in the amber fields.

Kristen is an accomplished and noted actress, her performance was as emotionally and intellectually satisfying as the one Dreyer got from his young unknown actress (Renée Falconetti) in his The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The only difference is that from Dreyer’s style of simplicity in filmmaking we can feel the pain ourselves we didn’t need it enlarged and magnified by wasted and unnecessary movements. For von Trier, he must get himself catapulted into the story. Simplicity and spareness are not enough, he doesn’t trust it.

That von Trier succeeds is because he has found the right Medea for the part and has caught enough of the mood without ruining it as he almost does, by going overboard with his excesses. I am mainly referring to the hanging scenes of the children. Von Trier’s treatment of the tragedy came very close to turning me off, as I was beginning to suspect that these scenes didn’t have to be that explicit in all its morbid details. The idea of having the older child go back for the younger one, seemed to be exploitative. All we had to see was the pained expression on Medea and the children and we could have drawn our own visions, even more powerful ones than the ones witnessed.

The reason Dreyer is a master and one of the greatest directors ever, is because he did not compromise his integrity or the film’s integrity going after anything that was superfluous to the telling of the story. I always get the feeling when I am seeing a Dreyer film, I am seeing something that is truly visionary. Yet when I see a von Trier film, I can’t say the same. He is a very talented director, but I just can’t trust his judgment when it comes to telling the story. I am never sure if he really got it or if he is putting me on.