Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Medea" (1988)

The scene of Jason's fruitless attempt at finding Medea in a field of hay is peculiarly reminiscent of a Van Gogh tableau. Although the super-grainy cinematography is at odds with the bright yellows of the Dutch master, Von Trier's characters (or archetypes) blend seamlessly into their surroundings. Reading Ancient Greek plays now has a similar effect - you are all too aware of the archetypal quality of the events and the characters. It is to Von Trier's credit, then, that this all-too-familiar and somewhat generic story becomes a beast unto itself.

We all know the story - Medea seeks revenge after her lover, to whom she bore two sons, betrays her by marrying King Creon's daughter. The King banishes Medea, fearing that she might to harm to his daughter. Jason tries to explain his reasoning to no avail as Medea is adamant. She devises a plan: first she will poison the King's daughter (Glauce), then she will kill her own children.

Von Trier's film is faithful to the original in every way but two crucial events.  Glauce, who is criminally absent and silent in the play, is a talking and constantly undressing young woman. Another deviation from the play comes in the infamous scene where one of the children plays a very active part in his own hanging. The film, based on the great Carl-Theodor Dreyer's script that he never materialized, doesn't take many other liberties with the text. Yet, Von Trier manages to convey a story both universal and strongly Scandinavian.

This is perhaps Von Trier's greatest achievement before taking up the role as the public face of the Dogme '95 - it is a beautifully shot film that is deeply unsettling. The second hanging is as difficult a scene as I have ever witnessed. Although Von Trier lost the plot with his Anti-American trilogy, the third of which still hasn't surfaced, this is a reminder (as if we actually ever needed in the first place) that he is one of the most formidable directors working today.

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