Long before conniving queen Cersei was taking extended (and extensively body-doubled) walks of shame, the baddest mythological mother of all was committing filicide as payback for her husband Jason's betrayals. I watched two versions of the classic Euripdes tragedy transposed to screen, a feature-length by Italian director Pasolini and a telefilm by the melancholy Dane himself, Lars von Trier. The two Medeas couldn't be more different. OK, I guess they could...if one featured Tyler Perry's Madea, which, come to think of it, could be interesting if dropped arbitrarily into the earlier film.
Pasolini casts opera legend Maria Callas in the title role and films the desert-locked proceedings with a neo-realist approach. He alternates between distant shots of people going about ancient rituals and ceremonies in documentary-like fashion to extreme close-ups of faces that often do not tell us much (mostly non-actors, I'm guessing). When it comes to the soundtrack, he has a similar tendency to shift between giant chunks of expository dialogue where names of various kings and queens and their relations are dropped then plays out the more intimate, emotional scenes with little to no dialogue, a silent movie in effect. That is, when the North African tribal horns aren't wailing over top.
This matter of fact approach tends to strain the attention span. In spots, you may not know what's going on unless you're already familiar with the Greek myth and all its players. Considering the film is titled Medea (and not Jason and Medea), he arguably begins the film earlier than needed before the two have met, then skims through the whole golden fleece ordeal (the most interesting part of the myth pre-Corinth), stopping long enough to have Medea lop off her brother's head in an obscured long shot. Later, Pasolini films Medea's discovery of Jason's infidelities with the princess Glauce in a curious manner, having Callas react strongly to a tableau of Jason cavorting around in a courtyard playfully with a bunch of other men. It seems as if she's discovering for the first time that her husband is gay and not under the spell of Corinthian princess. Some of Pasolini's own sexual predilections peeking through perhaps?
For me, Von Trier's more heavily stylized Medea went down better and faster...a brisk 76 minutes. He begins the story later with Medea and Jason (Udo Kier!) already parents of two adorably doomed offspring, already in Corinth, with Medea already well aware that's she's about to be shunted aside for the younger, fairer princess. Doom and gloom reigns from the very first swampy, ochre frames.
Von Trier's Corinth is more of a bog than Pasolini's desert setting. He shoots the dreary proceedings in the same muddy analog video he would later use to good effect in Breaking the Waves. He also intersperses some effective rear projection shots that he will also rely on heavily in his breakout feature Zentropa three years later. This visual approach only amplifies the silent Carl Dreyer effect he's going for (he based the film on an abandoned Dreyer adaptation of the play) and underlines the myth's black as pitch ending. Here, Von Trier unsurprisingly doubles down on Pasolini, filming the crime of dual filicide more viscerally. Whereas Pasolini had Callas rock her children to sleep then vaguely set their dwelling ablaze, Von Trier has his Medea slowly, excruciatingly hang her two cute moppets from a gnarled tree so that Jason could stumble upon his children's limp bodies thereafter. Leave it to the prankster Dane to out-disturb the man who later gave cinema one of its most unsettling concoctions, Salo.