Is There Hope for Lars von Trier's Medea?

Before we get accused of becoming too caught up in the latest, high-end Ultra HD new releases and forgetting our exotic DVD origins, let's take a look at the dual releases of Lars von Trier's 1988 made-for-television classical drama, Medea.  Just two rare DVDs of a funky art film hardly anybody talks about anymore.  Could there be a future for it?
With Medea, Trier is directing an unproduced script by Carl-Theodor Dreyer, a fellow Dane who started directing in the silent era and is probably best known for Vampyr and The Passion of Joan Of Arc.  At the onset, that might not sound too promising.  I don't mean that as a knock on Dreyer, but Trier's artistic voice is probably most compelling as a screenwriter.  Sure, he's known for all sorts of directorial flourishes and technical innovations (uncharitably, one might say "gimmicks"), but it's really his writing that sets his greatest works above his peers.  So where does that dynamism go when he's dusting off an old script adapting an even older play?  Assuming I can trust wikipedia, Euripides first produced Medea in 431 BC, and that of course was based on an even older myth.
And admittedly, things here are slower-paced and free of the dark, sardonic wit we can otherwise expect from Trier.  But Medea is a powerful story - there's a reason it's been preserved and retold for centuries - and it's expertly told.  Trier stays pretty faithful to Dreyer's script, but he chucks the traditional Greek chorus that Dreyer had intended to retain, re-stages the story to a location that doesn't even try to be ancient Greece (there's a line where the king says he won't relent until the gates close behind Medea, when they're standing in a muddy of a tiny island that clearly has no gates in any direction) and utilizes some creative rear-projection that reminds us we're watching Trier, not Dreyer.  But then again, you'll probably be surprised how understated Udo Kier is here as Jason of the Argonauts.
Facets Video first released Medea on DVD in 2003, here in the US.DVDcompare says the Facets' "picture is VHS-sourced," but the back of the case claims it's "direct from the original video master."  The film doesn't have that classic shot on video look, but it probably was made on the cheap and at least edited on some kind of tape format.  Either way, as you'll see, it ain't pretty.  There are some shots where it's hard to even make out which character is on screen, though it's debatable how much of that is deliberate stylization.  It's even been suggested the image was intentionally downgraded to obscure the unnatural separations between the fore- and back-ground imagery in the rear projection shots.  I have to be honest, crushing the total image quality does help to mask the seams.  But is that the best this film can look?  Everyone talks about the Facets DVD and how ugly it is, but what about the later Raro DVD that came out in Italy in 2005 (and repressed in 2012, which is the edition I have)?  They seemed to turn it into more of a special edition, so I double-dipped to find out if things could be any better. 
2003 US Facets DVD top; 2012 IT Raro DVD below.
Well for starters, Raro is a shade darker than Facets.  Both discs are roughly 1.30:1, but that's rough because the edges of the frame actually shift slightly, even within a single shot.  I left the negative space around them so you can see how messy the edges are.  Raro's is a couple pixels wider, and in some shots reveals a bit more image (compare the bottoms of the second set of shots), but other times doesn't.  Either way, both discs clearly share the same grungy, murky, ugly master.   For the most part, the screenshots speak for themselves.  One detail you'll need me to tell you, though, is that on the Facets, every sixth frame is un-interlaced, while every frame is interlaced on the Raro, which I guess technically is a point in Facet's favor.  But it mostly just raises questions.  According to the back covers, the Facets is NTSC and Raro is PAL, just like you'd expect.  And test both video files in MediaInfo, that bears out.  But both editions seem to actually play at the same speed for 76 minutes, so something weird.  I guess one has been conformed to the other timing.  Considering how funky this disc looks anyway, what's one more little quirk?

Both discs present the film in its original Danish mono 2.0.  One point for Raro: the English subtitles are burnt in on the Facets, but both English and Italian subs are optional on the Italian disc.
Facets has no extras at all, not even a trailer or insert.  But Raro has a couple noteworthy goodies, starting especially with their interview with Massimo Fusillo, a literature professor.  This is actually a pretty great interview, especially for a second-hand expert (as opposed to one of the filmmakers with first-hand knowledge of working on the footage).  It's a tight fifteen minutes with no waffling or film clips.  He starts out telling us about the original play and earlier literary adaptations, including different that have been added to and removed from the story over the years.  Then he gets into the film, with good insight into its history and comparing it to Passolini's Medea from 1969.  Technically it's low-fi, with jump-cut editing, interlacing, the sound of air conditioning buzzing and framing/ lighting that seems more interested in Massimo's fax machine than the man himself.  But content-wise, it's just what we want from an expert, and other special edition producers would do well to take notes.

The only other on-disc extra is a silly thing where quotes from the original screenplay can be read on the menu screen, followed by two unsubtitled clips from the film, ostensibly so we can compare how Dreyer wrote it with how Trier shot it.  But without the subtitles, it's less enlightening than just watching the film itself, utterly pointless, and just feels like an attempt to flesh out the special features to make this feel more like a loaded special edition that it is.  On the other hand, though, Raro has provided an excellent booklet, in both English and Italian, with an essay by Gabrielle Lucantonio as well as reprints of various reviews, articles and Trier quotes on the film.  So that's worth having.
The fact that some frames aren't interlaced on the Facets disc suggests some, if not all, of the present interlacing this film suffers on disc isn't inherent to the original film elements.  Who knows what else is a flaw in the DVD presentation as opposed to the master?  Everything you read about this film suggests it must always look as terrible as it does, but this makes me wonder what kind of restoration is possible?  Even if it couldn't look like Lawrence of Arabia in 4k, it seems likely it could look better than it does presently.  I'd love to find out some day.  But in the meantime, the Raro's the way to go, if only for that interview.

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