Lars Von Trier fits into cinematic history in a way that few other personalities do. His view of the world, of film, and of the human condition are perhaps the most cynical and opaque a director of such a reputation has ever had. With the possible exception of Pier Paolo Pasolini, his punishment of characters is unrivaled in the world of film, even in the notoriously bleak world of Scandinavian cinema. His films have shown the death of children and perhaps most famously unflinchingly showed the last ten minutes of a woman’s life before she is hanged. It makes perfect sense then that one of his first feature length films would be a take on the infanticidal revenge tale, Medea.
Medea is the story of a woman’s revenge on her husband, Jason, after he abandons her and their two children in favor of marrying a princess. Jason’s motives are never entirely clear (they’ve long been the topic of scholarly debate and literary criticism), but what is completely unambiguous is the way in which Medea responds to her misfortune. Von Trier, working from a script by the late Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer, takes one angle of the myth, that because Medea is part-god, her inhuman actions are made all the easier, and pulls it out of context to construct a myth in line with his cinematic ethos. Von Trier believes in showing punishment on screen, one can assume, because art imitates life. His movies are especially hard on women; it is easy to write his motives in choosing the project as misogynistic, but that would be to ignore the other half of the story. To say that Medea is misogynistic is to agree that Medea has but one side to her character. It is the duality of characters in excruciatingly adverse situations that makes Von Trier’s film’s both fascinating and almost impossible to sit through without squirming.
Medea’s first act establishes the abandonment felt by its heroine by showing her alone in desolate sea-side fields, and boggy marshes. Her clothes are plain, she is tired and drawn; She drags her two children behind her as if they were luggage, clearly worn down, but she never forgets them. The focus is on sympathizing with this poor woman as her situation goes from bad to worse. She is effectively humiliated, abused mentally and physically and made to feel old and unattractive, first by Jason and then by his bride. Jason’s gesture of leaving her would have been enough were it not for the uncertainty about their children. Medea wants Jason to have them because they will have a healthier life with him, but Jason is unsure whether he wants them, and is certain his new bride will resent their presence and deny their place in his life. What follows is a series of games the adults play with one another, the children being only a tool by which to achieve their ends, though they often take a backseat to sex.
Jason’s bride will not let him touch her until he divorces Medea; Jason lords the fate of their children over Medea’s head; in return Medea tries to warn him about what becomes of his breed of louse. It isn’t until the last act that she too uses earthly desires to feebly attempt to meet her needs. Sex, it seems is the weapon of the mortal, Medea only resorts to it when she sees no other way of communicating with her emotionally vacant nemesis. When the undeniably human approach she takes (using her children to secure her family’s safety), she resorts to awakening Jason to the consequences of his action by making him believe she will sleep with him once more. During this failed seduction, Von Trier places his characters in a decidedly unreal landscape (a very primitive blue screen effect, purposely jarring), reinforcing their separation from each other and ordinary emotions. Their thoughts and actions place them so far from humanity, that the world they once walked through cannot support them; their humanity has left them. The only difference between them now is the actions they have left to take. Jason agrees to take the children off of Medea’s hands after his bride meets them and agrees to act as their surrogate. This is the final straw for Medea, who then wounds Jason in a god-like fashion.
If we take Jason and Medea’s back story into consideration, that he had braved the harpies, war, and the seven-heads of the Hydra to save his people, a few things become clear. The first is that he is a man of no small constitution, the second is that he is no stranger to hard times. It is both easy and difficult to comprehend his decision to abandon his family, but Von Trier and Dreyer make it clearer that his id rather than his conscious is at work. Try as he might to explain to Medea that his decision is made out of love, his groping at his luscious new bride is about as clear as possible. How then do you wound a man with little feeling and brute strength? Medea discovers that the only way to harm such a man who has outlived the god’s estimation of him by fighting mythical beasts is to punish him on a purely human level. By framing him for wife’s murder and killing his children, not only has Medea finally done what no god could do (hurt him), but she has sealed his fate. Societal norms are his undoing, not his inability to conquer beasts and legions of men. Von Trier keeps the dramatic action on a human level, even if the devices by which the plot is set in motion are slightly mythic (the poison crown Medea uses to slay Jason’s bride, for example). The murders she commits are something so simple only a human could do it, and watching it is as painful as anything we could experience life. The pain of being a human is a recurring motif in Von Trier’s work, and he often has to go to absurd lengths to paint what he believes to be both faithful and artistic. How are we to take the villains who go unpunished in his debut Element of Crime or his television mini-series Kingdom Hospital? Or the tragic heroines of Dogville or Dancer In The Dark? Their suffering is so complete that it transcends its maudlin nature and achieves a level of tragedy that seems almost sublime. Medea is the first film he made where the female perspective is the only one we are given. The grey, marshy landscape Medea trudges into and leaves empty-handed are the mires of femininity and the uphill battle of dealing with societal pressures. In the accompanying myth, Medea abandons her male family to be with Jason, another strong male figure.
She is then cyclically discarded and left to bear the fruits of her marriage on her own. In a precursor to many stories of contraception, she wounds Jason’s pride by taking his male heir from him, and castrates him by murdering his healthy young bride. Her actions are so definitive that we needn’t see the end result; the murder of her children is more important than Jason’s or her own fate. Von Trier, as is his wont, doesn’t concern himself with the fate of his hero, he needs only to show the course they are on. If the cycle will be broken, he will break it himself; if it remains the same, he will leave it open-ended. In Dogville and again in Manderlay he sets his heroine Grace on a course of failed self-discovery, hemmed in on all sides by the darker regions of human nature. Selma in Dancer In The Dark has done all that her good nature will allow her to, and so the end of her life is a necessity. There is no ambiguity of the cycle of life, and there can be only one outcome; Von Trier wants to act only as an observer, but cannot hide his sympathy for the damned.
I don't know about you, but I can't wait for winter.