My summer with Lars: "Medea" (1988), plus a word from our sponsors

Because I’m a completist and therefore committed to working my way through all of LvT’s filmography this summer—the good, the bad, and the ugly—I made sure not to skip his 75-minute adaptation of Medea, made for Danish television in 1988.  (vT also directed some interesting-sounding commercials during this period, including a rather saucy one for the Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet, but I’ve unfortunately been unable to track them down.)  vT’s Medea follows not the original Euripides text but a previously unfilmed screenplay written by Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose work the young vT greatly admired, and rightly so.  It thus acts as a kind of thematic hinge connecting both of their bodies of work; vT and Dreyer are both preoccupied by, even obsessed with, what we might call the “suffering woman” plot, coupled with a side interest in the supernatural.  (The other vT film that Medea most calls to mind is Antichrist, with its battle of the sexes set against a vision of nature that is as menacing as it is eerily beautiful, as the screengrab above shows.  When Medea is accused to being a witch, a woman who represents all of the world’s evil, it’s hard not to think of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character in the later film.) 

What else can one say about the project itself other than that, even at 75 minutes, it feels a bit long?  Medea constitutes minor vT in more ways than one.  I’m convinced that vT did not really hit his stride until the mid-1990s, with The Kingdom and Breaking the Waves, the twin successes that put him on world cinema’s map, as it were.  These early films are the interesting but not always satisfying experiments of a fledgling auteur, not fully formed works.  What they do show us, though, is vT’s gift for visual stylization: even as Medea plods lugubriously along (who would have thought that this story could be made dull?), it’s often fascinating to look at.  Debates still swirl about whether David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), shot on digital video, looks ugly or beautiful; one could start a similar argument about Medea, with its drab color palette and grainy, degraded image quality that nevertheless somehow works.  (It was shot on video, transferred to film, then transferred back to video for its television broadcast.)  Whether one finds it compelling or execrable, the visual schema of the film is by far its most noteworthy feature—not even the welcome appearance of Udo Kier as Jason can save it, story-wise.  It also marks vT’s first use (to my estimation) of the kind of rear-screen projection effects he would soon go crazy with in Europa, the next film on our slate.    

EDIT: I've been able to find vT's Ekstra Bladet commercial.  Not surprisingly, it's not safe for work.

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