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Monday, 13 April 2009

The Element of Crime (1984)

Director: Lars von Trier
Star: Michael Elphick

A very fat man with a monkey on his shoulder wants to put someone under hypnosis, a cop called Fisher who has been having headaches since his last case. He takes him back a couple of months to a working trip to Europe, his first time there in thirteen years as he's been living in Cairo with an Egyptian wife. Apparently he was invited to Halbestadt because he can solve a murder case, and he's not surprised given that he finds a very clumsy investigation in the tatters of some flooded futuristic Europe, with the authorities shooting at shadows, literally. And meanwhile girls are being murdered, girls who sell lottery tickets, always suffocated but mutilated after death in the same way, a way which has not been made public.

Fisher is officially working for Kramer, the chief of police, someone he neither respects or cares for. First he goes to see his mentor, a great theorist called Osborne who has now been discredited. He's now a alcoholic wreck of a man, mumbling in lunacy, but still with moments of lucidity; his treatises have been removed from the police library. Fisher believes in his theories, discredited or not. He also believes that he's being threatened because he was getting too close to the lotto murderer, something the rest of the inept police force aren't in any danger of doing.

In the talented and dry form of Michael Elphick, who I know best from English TV, Fisher investigates, though he's hindered in almost every way possible. Lars von Trier's debut professional film is a highly dystopian future, Europe having collapsed into a nightmare of climate failure. There are no summers any more, everything is broken and everything is drenched because there's water everywhere and it hardly eever stops raining. It's a film noir, though instead of black and white we watch in a sort of sepia: some scenes are yellow and black, others more red and black. Nothing is in colour. As a Chinese whore tells Fisher, it's always three o'clock in the morning in Halbestadt.

The key to the story is found in The Element of Crime, Osborne's most important work, which appears to be a sort method acting approach to criminology, in which the cop effectively becomes the criminal to catch him. Here the key suspect appears to be a man named Harry Gray, whom Osborne had trailed in detail on a seemingly innocuous trip that Fisher is determined to follow in order to pick up the man's motivations. Think of it like Criminal Minds where the team don't just put a profile together, they relive it.

An IMDb reviewer by the name of Infofreak describes this journey as 'if Peter Greenaway directed Blade Runner with a script by David Lynch'. It's a magical description and one that rings mostly true. It's as organic as I remember Greenaway, as surreal as I know Lynch and as visually magnetic a future as Ridley Scott's, albeit in a thoroughly different way. Blade Runner saw humanity take on nature at its own game, where here nature takes humanity back. This feels more than any film I've seen like civilisation crumbling under the onslaught of powers greater than man. It doesn't even just feel like nature, it feels like inevitability.

What amazed me most was this rich visual tapestry, lush in detail carefully designed to be lived in and used up. Yet it comes at the hand of Lars von Trier, founding member of the Dogme movement that espoused purity over cinematic license. Rather than finding purity through handheld cameras, natural light and no makeup or effects, this film is pure cinema in a thoroughly different way: through something that can be done on film but in no other form. This film is full of cinematic trickery: overlayed imagery, stunning set design and utterly three dimensional camera work that not only shows us people upside down in polished floors, sideways under a desk to answer a phone or to reading reports while drifting in circles on rafts, but leads us effortlessly and seamlessly from one scene to another with deceptively subtle trickery. It isn't something that would work the same on radio or on stage.

It was the first in his Europa trilogy, to be followed by 1987's Epidemic and finally 1991's Europa. I'm going to need to find both of those now, even though one is far higher regarded than the other. Perhaps three films like this, if indeed the other two follow suit, wore him out, and led him to yearn for something so lacking in trickery that it almost isn't film: it's just acting on a screen. The Element of Crime takes that and builds on it in layers. The stunning storyline is obscured and remixed and played around with like a masterful jazz improvisation, but inexorably leading round in a circle to its inevitable end, which through the power of art is one level beyond what we expect. It's magnificent stuff and not something that can be truly appreciated in one viewing.

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