dir. Von Trier
Opens Fri, July 18
Clinton Street Theater
With breathtakingly sad films like Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark under his belt, the Danish Lars Von Trier is a master of movie misery, making him hard to like by anyone with a shred of hope. The recently re-released Medea, a plodding 1987 made-for-Danish-TV update of the epic Greek tragedy, won't win him any new fans.
Medea's tragic source material, the story of a woman who takes revenge on her disloyal husband by hanging their children, is vintage Trier; though unlike most of his films, he did not write this adaptation. The other great Danish filmmaker, the late Carl Theodor Dreyer, wrote it, and did nothing to flesh out its simplistic tale. We are told how Medea's husband, Jason, betrays her, but we're barely shown any of the process, outside of one scene between Jason and his new lady, Glauce, on their wedding night. Medea and Jason's relationships with their kids are also neglected, which means Medea's final atrocious act loses quite a bit of emotional impact. Granted, all this lack of detail fits the spirit of mythological storytelling, but that's why we don't read the same Greek myth for hours on end.
Fortunately, Trier has, if nothing else, an extraordinary visual flair. The look of Medea is unique; fuzzy, with colors that are somehow simultaneously dim and vibrant, as if painted on with watercolors. Few filmmakers can fill a simple shot of the ocean with as much menace as Trier can, and the rippling waves of his opening shot become a visual theme throughout the film, the constant wind blowing everything from grass to clothes into similar patterns. Some sequences, like the horse that goes into an unprovoked seizure mid-gallop and trips violently over its own head, are disturbingly real, forcing one to wonder exactly how Trier went about obtaining them.
Medea is not a pleasant film to watch, and for those unfamiliar with or unappreciative of Trier's work it will be downright miserable. But as a piece of filmmaking, it can't be discounted. It's hard to recommend a film in which style wins out over substance, but when the victory is this decisive, it's hard to do anything else.