Medea

Lars von Trier's ghostly version of the classical tragedy by Euripides by way of a screenplay written but never filmed by Carl-Theodore Dreyer and Preben Thomson has the haunted air of a silent film unearthed just before its irretrievable decay. Shot on video for Danish television in 1987 and set in some indeterminate past, von Trier's retelling rejects...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Lars von Trier's ghostly version of the classical tragedy by Euripides by way of a screenplay written but never filmed by Carl-Theodore Dreyer and Preben Thomson has the haunted air of a silent film unearthed just before its irretrievable decay. Shot on video for Danish television in 1987 and set in some indeterminate past, von Trier's retelling rejects the atmosphere of deranged fury that drives most versions of this blood-soaked revenge drama, replacing it with an icy, unhurried sense of inexorable doom. Exiled from her homeland, Colchis, for her part in helping adventurer Jason (Udo Kier) steal the Golden Fleece, sorceress Medea (Kirsten Olesen) has settled with him in far-off Corinth and borne him two sons. But the politically ambitious Jason abandons her so he can wed Glauce (Mette Munk Plum), nubile daughter of King Kreon (Henning Jensen); their marriage insures that Jason will one day assume Kreon's throne. Glauce demands that her father exile Medea, and Jason pointedly fails to intercede on his former lover's behalf. So Medea plots the most hideous revenge she can conceive, poisoning Glauce and her father with a tainted gift and then murdering her own children, displaying their corpses where Jason is sure to discover them. Von Trier's stark, desolate film is shot in colors so muted that interiors appear almost black-and-white, while exteriors look as though they've been tinted cool blue, scorched sienna and rusty, ominous red. In homage to Dreyer, the director treats human faces as self-contained landscapes, apparently impassive and yet infinitely revealing. He makes eerie use of the most desolate Danish locations, from rippling, grayish waves and burnt yellow meadows to a fog-bound mire bristling with clumps of marsh grass and studded with leafless branches, where Medea futilely asks Kreon for mercy — it's a landscape worthy of Mario Bava's haunted imagination. A dramatic, high-angle long shot of a poisoned horse, galloping across a damp beach trailed by a narrow line of its own hoof-prints combines stunning formal precision with a seething sense of erupting chaos. The interior sequences, most set in the labyrinth of underground tunnels and chambers that comprise Kreon's castle, make subtle, spooky use of reflections, silhouettes and shadows. In light of the aesthetic of ugliness that informs von Trier's Dogme films, it's easy to forget how subtly beautiful his work once was.

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  • Released: 1987
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Lars von Trier's ghostly version of the classical tragedy by Euripides by way of a screenplay written but never filmed by Carl-Theodore Dreyer and Preben Thomson has the haunted air of a silent film unearthed just before its irretrievable decay. Shot on vi… (more)

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