The Element of Crime

The Element of Crime (1984) movie poster

(1984) dir. Lars von Trier
viewed: 05/04/09

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is not an easy guy to describe or contextualize.  He’s a bizarre guy, with a radical philosophy about cinema, has made many films that are variously edgy or complicated, and he’s experience mixed adoration and dislike.  As well, his films are all over the place in their natures and style, and he’s often changing what he does or what he focuses on.  Safe to say, he likes to challenge his viewers, he’s a radical, and he has at times been brilliant and innovative.

I’ve seen a few of his films over the years, but I had never seen his early films, though I had often thought them to be likely interesting.  Why this made it up in my queue at this point, I cannot say.  The Element of Crime is Lars von Trier’s first feature film, the first of a series of films referred to as his “Europa” trilogy.  It’s quite different from his later Dogme 95 aesthetic and contemporary aesthetic, much more visual artifice and effects, a Surrealism.

The film is a mixture of noir and Surrealism, a little Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), and perhaps and Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988) (without the animation, just the visual aesthetic).  A detective returns to Europe (via psychotherapy) after years of exile in Egypt and seeks a child murderer according to the rules set in his mentor’s book “The Element of Crime”, which has him follow a criminal so closely as to identify with him.  Europe is in constant darkness, with pools of leaking water, dead horses, clutter and mess.  The film is highly visual, with stylized imagery, shot in color tones of yellow and red with occasional counterpoints of blue or green, shot with a technique using sodium lighting, which offers a sepia-tint hue to everything.

The story is unclear at best.  The film is much more about the design and the experience than about the full-on reality of the situation.  Frankly, and I am pretty open-minded in these things compared to most people, I didn’t really “get” it.  I mean, I followed the story, such as it was, and I could see where the detective who was turning understanding into replicating the killer was going, but I didn’t really “get” the whole of the point.  The colors, which looked cool, as did much of the art design in general, were visual pleasure, but conscious nonsense.  I can see this being one of those films where if you’d seen it at the right time and place might have seemed really cool.  It drips “avant-garde”, a kind of avant-garde that seemed to have burnt itself out in the 1980’s.  But to expend as much concentration as I did…I don’t know if I felt rewarded.

It was interesting.  It was less intentionally annoying or dissonant than some of others of von Trier’s films.  But it wasn’t… I don’t know.  It wasn’t a lot of things.  But it was still kind of cool.  Supposedly, as part of his “Europa trilogy” it’s about the decay of Europe.  Um, okay.  Europe is murky.  It’s distopia.  Children are being killed.  Identity.  Detection.  Uh…?  Yeah, I don’t really know.

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