Medea (von Trier, 1988) is an interesting film in Lars von Trier‘s body of work for at least two reasons. First, and most strikingly, it was made before von Trier’s turn to his charactaristic style expressed in the Dogme 95 manifesto. Whereas von Trier’s post-Dogme films are in a sort realistic style which eschews film school camera tricks, Medea has an expressivistic style which no one could mistake for a documentary. But, second, the female main character of Medea diverges significantly from the women in von Trier’s more recent films such as Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville. All of von Trier’s women suffer at the hands of a patriarchal society. But whereas the recent heroines submissively and silently suffer in a self-sacrifical way, Medea takes revenge on her husband for the suffering he causes her.
So von Trier’s work has shifted away from an expressivistic aesthetic toward a more restrained aesthetic, and he has shifted from a story about revenge toward stories about self-sacrifice. I would like to suggest that there is a link between these two shifts. And that link is von Trier’s conversion to Roman Catholicism.
It is hard to know how seriously to take von Trier’s Catholicism. Sometimes it seems to be merely an aesthetic pose. But since it is von Trier’s aesthetic that is at issue here, perhaps it doesn’t matter whether his religion is sincere. In any case, von Trier fairly explicitly sets up his recent heroines as Christ-figures who suffer self-sacrificially for the salvation of others.
What does this have to do with forsaking expressivism in favor of the rules of “dogma”? Von Trier has learned that it is not all about himself. When life is about the expression of self, then you can only respond to an attack on yourself with a counter attack. But when you acknowledges that there is a good order to the world which you did not create but which you must work within, then you can trust your principles and not feel the need to force others to fit into your own will. You can accept the suffering caused by others and sacrifice your own self in the hope that others may be redeemed.