Medea (1987)

Passion drives Lars von Trier’s Medea. There’s the obvious passion infusing the story itself, which von Trier renders with eminent subtlety and grace — an adaptation of Euripides’ archetypal “woman scorned” drama, the content practically bleeds passion from the seams. But there’s also passion for the event of filmmaking itself, a passionate embrace and exploration of the possibilities of film as form, as a mode of storytelling.

The film, originally shot for television, has a storyline that is simple, linear, and extremely effective. In order to secure the hand of the king of Corinth’s daughter (Mette Munk Plum), Jason (Udo Kier) abandons Medea (Kirsten Olesen) and her two sons. Fearing Medea’s rage, the king of Corinth threatens Medea with death if she remains in the kingdom. In a passionate, though perversely calculated rage over Jason’s betrayal (which the remarkable Olesen captures perfectly), Medea poisons king and daughter, hangs her sons, and escapes, leaving Jason lost in the tragedy of his own making.

Adapted from a script composed by the late Danish silent filmmaker Carl Theodor Dryer, this narrative is quiet and elegant. Unlike the original play, there’s a concerted lack of chatter throughout von Trier’s work — a brooding silence, punctuated here and there by distant sounds of nature (birds, waves, wind), is the order of the day. The actors, for their part, display an equal economy, delivering their dialogue with muted intensity. The effect is a sense of eerie oppression seemingly just on the verge of erupting into violence (which, of course, it will in the final sequences), a sustained imminence that no amount of wailing or chest-thumping could reproduce (and yes, it’s so very very Scandinavian).

Notwithstanding this aural restraint, the film remains unabashedly, daringly exuberant in form. A self-styled homage to Dreyer (announced in the opening credits), von Trier’s work harks back to those early days of cinematic experimentation, when every jump cut, every high angle shot, every subtle use of transition was new and exhilarating. It has a joyous energy resembling that of, say, Dziga Vertov’s masterpiece, Man With a Movie Camera (1929), that “Wow, look what I can do when I place the actress here, and aim the camera up at her from over here, and direct the light from over there” energy. It’s a marvelous display of passion for technique.

In Medea the best expressions of this technical joie de vivre are also some of the oldest in terms of the language of film: fade-outs leading to fade-ins, the use of cross-cutting to link parallel scenes, an effect von Trier strengthens by often cutting from extreme close-ups to extreme long-shots, the use of double-exposure techniques to compress the time and space of the film’s narrative, static shots cutting to moving shots.

All of these techniques are old hat, essentially having been created and mastered during the time of D.W. Griffith (not to mention Dryer), but von Trier manages to bring to them a renewed and real vibrancy. This is particularly the case in the final sequences of the film. Here, von Trier dramatically cuts from frenetic shots of the maniacally enraged and horrified Jason riding his horse helter skelter in a futile effort to catch Medea, to static shots of Medea (sometimes in close-up, sometimes from overhead) sitting calmly in a boat waiting for the tide to carry her out to sea, to her children dangling dead from the tree on which she hanged them. No one speaks. The imagery and editing tell the story far better than any words could.

Medea provides the viewer with a sense of the pre-Dogme 95 von Trier. Unafraid of actively intervening in the film’s construction, he experiments with the formal possibilities of video to make meaning. It’s an engagement with story on the level of form that’s lost in Dogme’s sometimes perverse and paradoxical drive to elide the medium from the medium. No less “pure” or “authentic” than Dogme’s formal asceticism, Medea almost makes one yearn for the days when von Trier was more “bourgeois.”