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With: Kirsten Olesen, Udo Kier, Ludmilla Glinska
Written by: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Directed by: Lars von Trier
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Danish with English subtitles
Running Time: 75
Date: 04/01/1988

Medea (1988)

4 Stars (out of 4)

A Woman Scorned

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sometimes it looks as if Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is more huckster than genius. He caused a worldwide stir with his "Dogme 95" and its filmmaking manifesto, and claimed to have used 1000 digital cameras to film his 2000 Dancer in the Dark.

For his 1988 feature length video Medea, he claimed to have been in constant telepathic contact with another Danish filmmaker, the great Carl Theodor Dreyer, who wrote the script but was unable to film it before his death in 1968.

But if von Trier were truly in contact with Dreyer, I'm certain he would have insisted von Trier use film instead of this lousy-looking analog video.

Truth be told though, Medea quickly grows on you, and the muddy, overly-pixilated pictures begin to resonate with a punchy beauty found in very few shot-on-film movies. Medea premieres today at the Roxie and at the Rafael Film Center, where it will be projected from a DVD source.

Based on the ancient play by Euripides, Medea is a kind of sequel to Jason and the Argonauts. Jason (Udo Kier) returns triumphant from gathering the Golden Fleece and is asked to marry the lovely young Glauce (Ludmilla Glinska) -- who disrobes in virtually every scene.

Unfortunately, Jason does not consider his current relationship with Medea (Kirsten Olesen), who has pledged her love to Jason and given him two sons. And so the heartbroken Medea vows revenge.

Very simply, her brand of revenge involves killing Jason's new bride and her own children -- but keeping Jason alive -- thus forcing him to live with his own grief (he doesn't live long).

The picture only runs 75 minutes, and the plot is fairly minimal, but von Trier uses silence and images to extraordinary effect; rarely do we get the impression that a theatrical play was the original source.

The most striking shot has Medea in the distance, walking across a huge, empty plain while wisps of dust billow at ground level toward the camera.

In one of the final scenes, we hear the mad Jason galloping back and forth on his horse offscreen while his two dogs look on, collapsed on the ground, their mouths foaming with exhaustion.

Von Trier isn't nearly as subtle or as spiritual as Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath) and, according to a 1997 essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, the director does very little to follow the original script, save for some scraps of dialogue.

All that means is that historians shouldn't be too quick to credit Dreyer with much of anything on this project. On the other hand, Medea is a major work from von Trier, easily in league with Breaking the Waves.

(This review originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.)

DVD Details: I've since learned that von Trier specifically intended the film's look, and so I've upped its rating a bit. It could be the director's finest work...

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