This dazzling stylistic, surrealistic noir is part of Danish director Lars Von Trier’ crumbling dystopian Europe trilogy, alongside Epidemic and Zentropa, of which it shares many similarities. It was back in 1984 when Von Trier, a precocious new graduate was much more interested in the image and less so in molesting actors as he would later do to devastating effect with Bjork (Dancer in the Dark) and Nicole Kidman (Dogville). In other hands Element of Crime could be a gripping suspenseful noir, a hark back to the nasty hard-boiled pulp from the fifties. Yet this isn’ just anyones hands. Even this early on Von Trier exhibits a willful perversity, regularly deviating from the narrative to pursue stylistic endeavors. To begin with everything is filmed with a yellowish brown tint that hints at sepia, yet is much yellower. Whilst it’s filled with remarkable inconceivable technical shots it also remains remarkably true to the conventions of the genre, filmed almost entirely at night, it’s a detective yarn with mysterious female characters and some sort of strange conspiracy. A former cop, under hypnosis, exiled to Cairo, relates his return to a post apocalyptic landscape (possibly England) to investigate a series of murders. His former mentor, now half mad, who wrote the handbook on investigating violent crime, literally the “element of crime,’ who previously investigated the murders, is somehow involved, as our hero battles with his own mind in an attempt to find the killer. Yet this is like no detective film you’ve ever seen. It’s a crime film fever dream, where reality and imagination intersect and it’s impossible to tell the difference. Not that you really care, as it’s impossible to think of a debut, perhaps since Eraserhead, that creates such a remarkable and surreal nether world, that you’re more than happy to be swept along in for as long as the ride lasts.
There’ a great doco called anecdotes from Element of Crime where participants recount the freezing temperatures, filming in sewers with untreated excrement and a particularly gruesome tale involving animal slaughter. Then there’ an early doco about Von Trier which is memorable for having a young Von Trier waxing lyrical. It’s a great package.
-Bob Baker Fish