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With: Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Me Me Lai, Jerold Wells, Ahmed El Shenawi, Astrid Henning-Jensen, Jånos Herskó
Written by: Lars von Trier, Niels Vørsel
Directed by: Lars von Trier
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 104
Date: 05/14/1984

The Element of Crime (1984)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Future Tense

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Earlier this year, I called The Way of the Gun just about the coldest crime movie I'd ever seen. Had I seen Lars von Trier's feature debut The Element of Crime first, I never would have made such a silly statement. It makes The Way of the Gun look warm and cuddly.

Newly released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, The Element of Crime takes place in a post-apocalyptic future. It's always dark and often raining, and everything is drenched in a golden hue (devoid of almost all reds and blues). The story concerns a washed-up detective named Fisher (Michael Elphick) who returns to Europe from Egypt after it has been buried in the sand. He's called upon to solve the mystery of the "Lotto Killer," a maniac who kills little girls selling lotto tickets. Of course, he has his mentor (Esmond Knight, from The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom), a former teacher who wrote the book The Element of Crime, and his sidekick dame (Me Me Lai), a former prostitute whom he has "converted." Following the process of his mentor's book, Fisher must try and enter the psyche of the killer in order to catch him. (This same idea was used in Michael Mann's Manhunter two years later, and in the current The Cell.)

The problem with The Element of Crime is that old predicament of too much style, not enough substance. Our hero narrates the story with a drab monotone, and we barely ever see his face close enough to know what he looks like. He's pretty much a non-entity. The girl is around solely to take her clothes off a couple of times (although I have no problem with that). And their dialogue rarely has anything to do with what's going on. They mostly just talk in broken parts of unfinished poems.

At the same time, the mystery story -- the only thing we have to cling to--takes a huge nose dive at the end. Fisher is shown using a little girl as bait and waiting to catch the bad guy. The next thing we see is a bunch of bald guys bungee jumping and bobbling in the water. I wonder if even von Trier has any idea what this means. It's so disconnected that it comes across as a mean joke on us.

On the other hand, the film has an astonishing visual sense. Every shot is painstakingly set up for maximum visual impact. Most shots are meant to convey emptiness and dreariness, but many of these are worthy of framing. Other scenes reminded me of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, a movie that wasn't made until the following year. I also caught a small tip o' the hat to Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966). And, as I said before, von Trier drains all red and blue out of the picture and leaves only a thick gold.

Von Trier was often accused of being cold and lacking humanity in his early films. This is a common problem of filmmakers raised on watching movies. But with his masterpiece Breaking the Waves, and the current The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark, von Trier has broken out of this mold, bringing to his new movies a flair for melodrama and passion straight out of D.W. Griffith. Watching Dancer in the Dark and The Element of Crime only a week apart, as I did, one would never realize that the same filmmaker made them.

Von Trier has a lot in common with Jean-Luc Godard, a French director who began in film criticism and now makes films more along the lines of essays than stories. Most Godard films strike me as dull the first time around, but then explode with brilliance the second time around. I don't know if that will happen with The Element of Crime, but I plan to keep it around just in case.

The DVD by the Criterion Collection is typically excellent, even if the material on it is questionable. Besides the movie, it contains a documentary on von Trier shot around the time of Breaking the Waves called Tranceformer that reveals a little more than nothing about the reclusive filmmaker. A long arty trailer for The Element of Crime is also a turn off. The menus, on the other hand, are well designed.

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