Welcome to the new season of Directed Viewing. If you're new to this series of articles, Directed Viewing is a weekly piece where I pick a director and watch all of their movies in chronological order. It started as a way to keep my Netflix queue moving, but it's quickly become a sort of biography-in-motion, a way to peer into the inner workings of artists and their evolution even as I fill in the gaps in my own film history.
This is hardly the first season of Directed Viewing (if you want to check out prior pieces, I have a big table of contents you can find here) but I do keep wanting to grow this series by tackling new challenges. So after last season with the fairly classical choice of Stanley Kubrick, I felt it was time to break new ground. What do I mean? I mean a) a director that doesn't work entirely in English, and b) a director that has a TV show closely associated with them. Which narrows it down quite a bit. If you haven't bothered reading the title of the article for some reason, this season of Directed Viewing is devoted to Lars von Trier.
Von Trier is an interesting choice, to be sure. While I try to stay away from really arty stuff, he definitely falls on the far end of that spectrum. He's also a decidedly controversial figure, for reasons mostly unrelated to his movies (and as-of-yet potentially outside the scope of these pieces). But he's also a fairly prolific auteur, and the two movies I had seen going into this project (Antichrist and Melancholia) are movies I found myself deeply drawn to. So von Trier it is, strange choice or not.
For anyone keeping track at home, you can find von Trier's filmography HERE, and I'll be going in as much order as I can. The first five movies on that list are all student films and shorts, most of which aren't available in any reasonable capacity. So we'll start with the first film von Trier made after graduating from the National Film School of Denmark, and his first feature length film.
The Element of Crime (1984)
It all begins in Cairo, a dusty fever dream of a main character's point of view as he talks to a hypnotist. Or maybe it begins in the hypnosis, a memory of a time before the main character fled to Cairo, back when he was in Europe. This lead is a detective named Fisher (Michael Elphick), who's returning to Europe from abroad even in his memory, a dream within a dream of sorts. The focus of this hypnosis, and Fisher's narration of this adventure? To recall his last case, where he tracked down a serial killer. Or at least, that's the face of it. The why and how is all left to be teased out.
I've been writing two or three articles a week in this blog for months now, and less regularly before that, and I've never stooped to calling a movie pretentious. There's good reason for that: I feel like pretentious is a terribly overused and misappropriated word for any piece of art that the beholder doesn't/can't understand. I've never wanted to be that person. Even if I don't 'get' something, I think there's value in exploring that confusion and the wisps of comprehension I did glean. To call something pretentious, then, would be a defeat, even if it actually is pretentious in the literal definition of the word.
This goal was sorely tried with The Element of Crime.
Breaking down exactly what makes The Element of Crime so obtuse is difficult, because so much of it seems like it would appeal to me—and often it does. With it's hypnosis-driven dream structure, The Element of Crime plays out somewhere between a nightmare and a noir film, a detective on a journey into the dark parts of the human soul while the world of his memory crumbles all around him. It's part Inception, part Blade Runner, and part Silent Hill. That should be amazing. What it becomes instead is an exercise in implying everything so deeply the very idea of meaning gets lost in the fog.
First and foremost, let's talk about style. Von Trier is a director we're going to have to talk about style with a lot, as he formulated his own visual-narrative school later in his career (don't worry about it right now) only to later abandon it for almost its polar opposite. Yet from the beginning this movie shows a deep, incredible visual flair. The entire film is lit with sodium lights, bathing the already shadow-heavy noir shots in a deep orange sepia. It's a world that has only two main colors: black and rust, punctuated with only a few moments of startling blue or green from TV screens. It's striking and honestly very beautiful in a deeply unsettling urban decay sort of way.
Thankfully, that stylistic choice is backed up by the set design. The movie seems to take place entirely in construction sites, sewers, and abandoned buildings. Water drips from every surface, mold festers in every corner, and every building looks like a stiff breeze would turn it into rubble. It's a blasted post-industrial hellscape that mirrors the fractured, increasingly disjointed mental state of Fisher as he descends into the nebulous space of memory. And as a stylistic choice it absolutely works, a sharp underline for the themes of the movie. The problem is, its stylism is SO in harmony with its main themes that it ends up becoming a shouted statement that overpowers an already too-lengthy movie.
Which brings us to the plot. The Element of Crime mainly deals with this memory of Fisher's case of the Lotto Killer, a serial killer who hunts down young women and who the police seem loathe to trust to bring him to justice. You see, Fisher is a student of a method called the Element of Crime, proposed by his once-prominent teacher in a book of the same name. The idea of the Element of Crime is that a detective can only catch a serial killer by empathizing and understanding a serial killer. Fisher's teacher, Osborne, once used this method to supposedly catch a killer who matches the MO of Fisher's Lotto Killer, though eventually he was dismissed as a crackpot by everyone but Fisher.
This ends up being a very similar concept to that used by Thomas Harris in his novel Red Dragon, which later made a duo of movies about a similar investigative concept (Manhunter in 1986 and Red Dragon in 2002), but with the added complications of von Trier's adherence to the dream constructs of this movie. As you might guess, as Fisher begins to try to inhabit the mind of this killer, in his dream the line between who he is and who the killer is starts to blur. And the parallels to the case with his mentor are so faithfully mirrored that one begins to wonder if that isn't just another manifestation of some eventual truth, if Osborne is Fisher and the killers they seek are the man we've followed down this rabbit hole.
That kind of unreliable construction is heady stuff, but the problem is the movie is so deep into the hypnosis that the idea of 'real' becomes impossible to grasp onto. That's fine when it's the point, but these sorts of identity noir mysteries, even the metaphysical ones, have to have moments where the audience at least can latch onto something and say 'this is a thing that is real.' The Element of Crime has no such moment. It looks into the void and dives in headfirst, and we're left as lost as Fisher. Which is a neat concept, but the movie starts at that point and never really finds anywhere new to take it. Eventually being deliberately left without handholds becomes more exhausting than fun, and the twists and turns of a person's psyche can so easily feel like spinning in circles when it all looks the same.
Not to say The Element of Crime is a bad movie, but it's a very hollow one. It's an incredible look and a solid idea, but the execution is so devoted to its conceits that it never rises above them. What the total result of this becomes is more style than substance, which can be fine but manages here to mostly be a short film idea stretched beyond the breaking point. I know often first features are an exercise in compromise, but this very much is trying to squeeze enjoyment from a lot of detached, wholly manufactured confusion. It's a movie that reeks of film school, with not much to say to back up its ... pretense?
Perish the thought. We don't use words like that here.
So I'm going to try linking the trailer at the bottom of these, in part because old trailers are hilarious and I should watch them more often, and also because sometimes it can give you a better sense of what the movie looks/feels like. Hopefully nobody dislikes this. Let me know if you do, and why, or else it'll keep happening.