Director Lars Von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves) made Medea in 1988. He had been working in television for some time, but he hadn’t yet directed Zentropa (AKA Europa), which would earn him international acclaim four years later. Nevertheless, his rich, dark, troubled style was already taking shape.
Based on a script by the great Carl Theodor Dreyer, Medea is a relatively faithful telling of the Greek myth. Medea helped Jason get the golden fleece, after which they traveled together and had two sons. But Jason eventually took another wife, and Medea, to get back at him, killed his new bride, then killed her own sons by Jason.
NR for Should be R for nudity and violence
This version strips away the machinations of the gods and leaves the very human story of ambition and jealousy. Von Trier also fills in what’s missing from the myth, namely, the effect Medea’s filicide had on Jason. Mythologist Edith Hamilton merely says he was angry. Von Trier says it drove him mad.
Von Trier and cinematographer Sejr Brockmann shoot on video, not film. For most people, this would be a huge compromise, but Von Trier and Brockmann work miracles with the image. From the opening shot, they shows they’re in complete control. The picture quality never rises above video, but the cinematography — color, texture, composition, and movement — is outstanding.
Medea is expressionist, meaning the subject’s emotions are reflected in the atmosphere. Standing in for Greece are the cold, windy marshes of Scandinavia. The color is washed out; all is brown, gray, and drab. The only bright spot in the movie is a sunny moment when Medea is promised safe passage off the island.
Some art-house Scandinavian movies are cryptic, and some that are shot on video (the Dogme 95) just look cheap. Not Medea, which is visually rich, dark, and exact, and which can be appreciated by anyone who has studied mythology.
Medea is not rated, but there is some nudity, and there are some (aptly) distressing scenes of death, so leave the kids at home.