An apologia for all future Susan Smiths, Euripides’s filicidal classic Medea is a simple story. The titular woman of magic is scorned by Jason, her husband and the father of her two children, who leaves her to marry Glauce and become the son-in-law of Corinth’s king Kreon. Medea plots a revenge that will be the end of Jason, Glauce, Kreon and, most horrifyingly, her own children. Lars von Trier’s video adaptation (based on a script by the great Carl Theodor Dreyer) opens on Medea (Kirsten Olesen) before the wedding ceremony, hissing with anger and rejection and clutching the sand on the beach with her hands as the tide washes over her body. Von Trier, whose Dogma 95 stressed a rejection of all things artificial in cinema, is really nothing if not a willful stylist, mixing transcendence with the mundane, and color with flatness. For some, his cinematic fun and games hold interest only for so long, and the epic length of some of his most recent toy chests (especially the controversial Dancer in the Dark) probably lost as many as they converted. But Medea, produced for Danish television in 1987, is a remarkable, streamlined minimalist tone poem. Set in marshlands and a castle that looks more like a sewer, the overall emphasis is placed on Euripedes’s earthiness rather than his more cosmic implications. Unlike later von Trier heroines, Medea is far from a martyr. Her suffering might be tangible, but her actions and their outcomes are never beyond her vengeful control. When she offers the fateful gift (a wedding crown, tipped at the razor peaks with poison) that will cause a plague-like wave of death across the house of Kreon, her expression is that of blank professionalism. Her last stab at intimacy with Jason immediately before this moment sees Medea already coolly resigned to her status as a sexual also-ran. And it’s not only Medea who understands the tragic role of fate. When she’s preparing to string her children up to their deaths, the older son helps persuade the frightened younger one to go along with their mother, even if it means the end of their lives. Whether due to the implosive performances of the entire cast or the brief running time, Medea captures the encroaching dread of the inevitable like few films ever have.
Most experts will tell you that even the highest quality video from the ’80s has a shelf life of 20 years, give or take. Facets’s transfer of Medea, while no doubt faithful to the source material, reveals-if not enhances-the age of the material: colors bleed profusely, skin tones look bizarre in some scenes, and the rain, which plays a big part in the film’s mise-en-scène, barely registers. Despite or maybe even because of these limitations, Medea’s stripped-down approach to Dreyer’s spare screenplay finds a haunting visual match in the grainy video, and all that’s left is an ethereal spectre of the original production. (Some may see this transfer as a total disaster, but one has to suspect von Trier was aware of video degeneration when he chose the format.) The tricked-up sound mix hasn’t aged as much as the video accompaniment and, barring a glitch in the first minute of the film, it’s flawlessly presented in stereo. Joachim Holbek’s moving score is only occasionally overshadowed by a surprisingly aggressive ambient sound collage of water drips and gusting winds.
No extra features were included on this disc.
Between this and Dreyer’s own ode to castrating matriarchy, Master of the House, one could have a real ironic Mother’s Day film festival.