Well, here we are again. I really can’t seem to stay away from the works of film making extraordinaire and 100% grade-A nutcase, Lars von Trier. This time, like I previously did with Steven Soderbergh and sex, lies, and videotape, I’m going to be looking at von Trier’s first effort at a feature film. While having done some short films before this, this is the one that introduced his odd style and uncomfortable atmosphere that would be present in most of his movies. So, let’s take a trip back to 1984 with The Element of Crime.
While in Cairo, Detective Fisher (Michael Elphick) goes to see a psychiatrist due to completely losing the memory of his last case. While there, he undergoes hypnosis, which unlocks the part of his mind that is hiding the information he desires. This memory is of a dystopian Europe, where poverty, anarchy, and violence rule the streets. After visiting his mentor, Osborne (Esmond Knight) and discussing his book on solving crime, he is called to investigate a murder perpetrated by the “Lotto Murderer.” In order to solve the case, Fisher employs the method that Osborne wrote in his book “The Element of Crime,” and that is to get into the head of the murderer until you finally understand them. As Fisher delves deeper into the case, he soon finds himself losing touch with himself and finding more in common with the murderer.
Like many of von Trier’s movies, The Element of Crime is very big on style. The only problem is that it lacks in just about every other department. The entire film is tinted yellow or orange, which gives it a very distinct look. What makes it even cooler is that there will be splashes of blue thrown in, whether it’s the static on the tv or the lights hanging overhead. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a movie that looks like this one, and that’s still a pretty high complement when movies tend to look like other movies. The dystopian Europe is shown through such a horrific lens, that it will be hard to forget moments of this movie and its overall style. Still, that isn’t enough to make a movie great.
I challenge anyone who’s watching this movie for the first time to tell me what’s really going on. If you can, than you’re a better person than I’ll ever be. There’s nothing wrong with a movie whose goal is to confuse the audience, but there should always be some sort of payoff. The Element of Crime simply makes no sense. I get that it’s about a police detective that’s getting too deep into the mind of a killer, but that’s about all I really get. The acting is all fine and a lot of the dialogue is actually very smart, but it doesn’t really amount to anything much since I had no idea what was happening.
The Element of Crime is the first part of a thematic trilogy about dystopian Europe. The other two films are Epidemic and Europa, which I have previously reviewed. I haven’t seen Epidemic
, but The Element of Crime is really nothing when standing up against Europa. Still, you have to give credit where credits due, and this debut film was important in showing what Lars von Trier was capable of creating, if even just giving a glimpse of it. It put him on the spotlight and since then, his style and skill have only been improving.
As far as debut films go, The Element of Crime certainly isn’t the best, and the reason why it’s included in the Criterion Collection sort of remains to be seen. Perhaps it’s just the fact that it’s the first feature film for von Trier, and they can’t really seem to stay away from him. In my opinion, this is a pretty shallow effort that looks gorgeous on the surface, but there’s not really anything backing it up. This is only a film to see if you’re a huge fan of Lars von Trier’s work, but even then I guarantee that you’re going to be disappointed.