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Thoughts on Lars von Trier’s Medea

This minimalist version of Euripides’ tragedy is excellent. Based on a script by another great Dane, Carl Dreyer (director of Ordet and the Passion of Joan of Arc), in terms of form the movie is much less a Greek Tragedy than a long dream about horses, the sea, wind, and long grass. These last two elements feature prominently in Dreyer’s Ordet, so the move certainly works well as an homage to the earlier master.

Which is not to say that von Trier doesn’t tell his version of Dreyer’s version of Euripides’ version of the ancient story – the characters are all there in much the familiar order of events, and if memory serves, some of the words are taken directly from the play many of us first read in school. I can’t say what it was like to watch a Greek tragedy at the Dionysia, but my own wild guess is that one listened as closely as possible to a lot of words. Perhaps some of these words were sung; they were certainly performed, but even to merely read those words now is to struggle with some of the most arcane imagery and ideas ever written – even in a very good modern translation.

This is not the experience of watching von Trier’s Medea.

In the movie, there are of course people – characters – but their significance against the backdrop of the aforementioned images left me wondering whether the characters are better understood as the backdrop. As an illustration of this point, consider the scene of the death of Jason’s young bride, Glauce. In Euripides’ version, the horrible sequence isn’t even acted on stage; a description of the event is told to Jason by a messenger in the form of a monologue almost 100 lines long.

In the movie, Glauce unsuspectingly pricks her finger with poison. Then we watch a horse, pricked with the same poison, gallop across sand by the sea for a minute, or maybe two. We never actually see the agony of Glauce.

Indeed, De Palma’s Carrie is a more kindred representation of the death scene as imagined by Euripides. My point here isn’t whether von Trier is better than De Palma or even how “faithful” he is to the spirit of Euripides or Dreyer; what seems important to me is how “faithful” he is to the vision that compelled him to make the film in the first place. Very faithful, it seems to me. One basis for this judgement is that several technical achievements here show up in later movies such as Zentropa, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville. To be sure, the vision that compelled him to make the film must have had its origins in Dreyer and Euripides. But as von Trier emphatically notes in words at the beginning, it isn’t meant to be a Dreyer film; nor, I think he could have added, was it meant to be a Euripides film. It’s a von Trier film, of course, and in my humble opinion, the best one I’ve seen.

Film is a form of drama: this is obvious enough, I suppose, since a screenplay is much like a script and what is seen is a performance by actors. There are differences as well: modern films have mostly done away with sets (which are something like a stage), there’s really only one performance – played over and over again, and the much greater role of technology allows for infinitely elastic content. Certainly the art of cinematography is able to transport viewers in ways hardly imagineable in live theatre; more generally, the simple fact that viewers watch images on a screen brings a lot of importance to the manner in which those images are made. I’ll leave out references to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, but by way of comparison, I will say that one of the great pleasures of going to live theatre these days is seeing actual people sitting in actual furniture performing in actual time.

What von Trier has done with the minimalist approach in this movie is to offer a new consideration of ancient drama.

For starters, the dialogue is in Danish; that this works perfectly well (Jason might well be a viking) indicates how well the story is able to cross cultural boundaries. The setting of a Northern kingdom near the ocean is in accord with the original setting of the myth in Colchis, on the Black Sea, and I think von Trier uses this much to his advantage. The camera plays the role of chorus in the drama – a silent one – perhaps leading viewers to join it. In the same way the poetry of ancient choral passages reflect on the action in the play, the emphasis von Trier gives to the harsh landscape underscores the bitterness of the unfolding drama, and left me wondering about the Greek understanding of nature, human and otherwise.

Examples of love are everywhere in the story, but it’s always perverted. Jason loves Glauce – but selfishly, since it makes him son-in-law to a King. More than that, she is young flesh. Medea still loves Jason, but with carefully controlled rage bent towards revenge. Medea loves her children, but is willing to sacrifice them to the anger that drives her on. Her children love her, one so willingly that he would offer himself as that sacrifice. Against all this, we have the stark beauty of the sea, the wind in the long grass, and horses galloping across long stretches of sand. Can all this really come from the same source? How?

Comments

  1. Thank you, I enjoyed your poetic reflection on von Trier's "Medeaa."

    Perhaps, you could follow it up with a comparative reflection on Lars von Trier's and Pier Paolo Pasolini's Medeas?

    If so, please, let me know at letranger1@gmail.com

    Alexander Soifer

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