The Greek myth of Medea ends in tragedy, and this bold, bullish adaptation from Alexander Zeldovich positions itself firmly within the tragic genre. The narrative appears overtly determined, the plotting is arbitrary and characters are revealed by their fatal flaws. These qualities, after all, constitute the mythic approach to storytelling (Yorgos Lanthimos deployed something similar in The Killing of a Sacred Deer). Such dramaturgical self-seriousness produces in this case a work of certainty and conviction, which will likely put off as many as it will enthrall. And the tenacious depiction of sexual gratification, for one, might lead some to wonder whether the director has confused horniness for profundity.
Medea (Tinatin Dalakishvili), a modern incarnation living in contemporary Russia, commits an act of violence that amounts to sacrifice. When her husband, Jason (Evgeniy Tsyganov), learns of it after they have moved to Israel, he is horrified, disgusted and ashamed. His withdrawal from his wife lights the match that engulfs their existence. He drifts away, trying to shield his children from the sins of their mother, who spirals into an epic odyssey of sex, revenge, and eventual penitence. Her pristine beauty, as embodied by Dalakishvili, is one of sharp, diaphanous angles, a spear hurled through the chaos of experience, born of an ancient trauma reemerging in the present. Having started on the path to destruction, it’s now impossible for her to stop.
There are striking compositions and suggestive sightlines (DP Alexandre Ilkhovski), especially those which culminate in the shocking moment of filial vengeance. But the most valuable (or at least, most insistent) player is Alexey Retinsky, whose highly developed, acutely manipulated score dominates the mood and tonal palette. Coercive whines and barbs imbue Medea’s descent into incurable grief with ominous sonic horror. Zeldovich’s scene-making, in turn, tends to isolate and emphasise the world of the protagonist: very little natural life exists outside of her immediate presence and activity. This fact is strikingly inverted in the final image, an innocuous street panorama populated with people rather than archetypes, shot from an eerie fixed perspective (akin to Michael Haneke’s Hidden). It provokes more questions than it resolves, reinterpreting the preceding tale of loss and betrayal.
To varying effect, religious, cultural and national conflicts simmer underneath Medea’s sexual conquests. Her husband is the point of erotic origin, a Jewish man made wealthy by the construction industry. Through Jason’s occupation, the director probes historical concerns, dipping a finger in the Israel-Palestine divide. By developing new forms of concrete, the screenplay insinuates, the character aids the building of settlements and partitions in Jerusalem. The character even notes his discomfort about working with a German company that assisted in the chemical production of Zyklon B, which was used to murder Jews in Auschwitz. These loose allusions attempt to illustrate the central thesis: that the horrors of history continue to erupt; time cannot be reversed; and what has been lost – happiness, innocence, youth – does not come back.
Medea does not have a UK release date yet.
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