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Forbrydelsens Element

Forbrydelsens Element (1984) Movie Poster
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Denmark  •    •  104m  •    •  Directed by: Lars von Trier.  •  Starring: Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Me Me Lai, Jerold Wells, Ahmed El Shenawi, Astrid Henning-Jensen, János Herskó, Stig Larsson, Harry Harper, Roman Moszkowicz, Lars von Trier, Frederik Casby, Duke Addabayo.  •  Music by: Bo Holten.
      A European police detective living in Cairo undergoes hypnosis therapy to deal with headaches caused by his last case. He recounts spending two months in a dystopian Europe investigating the serial killings of young girls who sell lottery tickets. While the current police force there employ clumsy methods, he continues to use the controversial theoretical methods of his now disgraced former mentor. He becomes obsessed with a suspect from previous similar killings, and using an old surveillance report retraces the steps of that suspect. As the journey progresses, the differences between the cop and the serial killer become blurred.

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Image from: Forbrydelsens Element (1984)
Image from: Forbrydelsens Element (1984)
Image from: Forbrydelsens Element (1984)
Image from: Forbrydelsens Element (1984)
Image from: Forbrydelsens Element (1984)
Image from: Forbrydelsens Element (1984)
Image from: Forbrydelsens Element (1984)
Image from: Forbrydelsens Element (1984)
Image from: Forbrydelsens Element (1984)
Image from: Forbrydelsens Element (1984)
Image from: Forbrydelsens Element (1984)
Image from: Forbrydelsens Element (1984)
Image from: Forbrydelsens Element (1984)
Image from: Forbrydelsens Element (1984)
Beginning a trilogy of films dealing specifically with the decline of post-war Europe, this extraordinary, heavily referential, psychological thriller would be the first cinematic outing from acclaimed Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. Like all of the director's early works, the story is convoluted, and works best as an example of cinematic dream-logic, unfolding in an undisclosed European state, where day and night no longer exist, rain seems to be falling almost constantly and the only colour we see is a thick yellow sepia that is only occasionally pierced by jarring shafts of neon light. The story then builds on ideas of faith, redemption, love and mental anguish, familiar in symbolic rigour to the works of Ingmar Bergman - but with a fragmented composition and style more akin to the framing of Andrei Tarkovsky, or the industrial surrealism of David Lynch.

From the opening images of a donkey basking in the hot sands of a Cairo desert (a metaphor for the central character and a reference in it's self to the Tarkovsky classic Andrei Rublev), to the waterlogged depiction of Europe, filled with burnt-out cars, decaying animal carcasses & lost children, The Element of Crime creates a world so murky, so damaged and so lost within the abyss, that it expressionistically conveys the sense of detachment and pain felt by the central protagonist, Fisher. Fisher is a washed up former detective, who after living in Cairo for a number of years, returns to his native Europe to help his mentor Osborn with a murder investigation. In the first scene - which takes place two months after the events of the main story - an unseen Fisher sits in a psychiatrist's office conversing with the doctor who promises to help him find the root to his problems. Here, von Trier is able to utilise one of his favourite narrative devises, hypnosis... as he blends together the character's psyche with the action in the film. From this point on, the entire film takes place from Fisher's point-of-view, his voice-over only rarely broken by the psychiatrist, who pops up to keep the story on track.

In the lead role, the great Michael Elphick acquits himself admirably, though his role in the film (like all of the actors) is little more than a marionette to von Trier's demented puppet master (although, to be fair, with his rugged appearance and monotonous delivery of lines, he does successfully ease himself into the role of the gumshoe perfectly, brining to mind some of the genre's best-loved anti-heroes... for example, Philip Marlow from the Singing Detective fantasy sequences or Lemmy Caution from Godard's similarly dystopic masterpiece Alphaville). However, what is amazing about The Element of Crime far beyond acting, is von Trier's way of breaking down the genre - not content with producing a carbon copy of classic thrillers run through with art-house dramatics, he sets about subverting and destroying both design and ideology - like a schoolboy scribbling graffiti in a textbook, the result is jarring, criminally audacious and completely astounding. Here, white linen suits replace hats and trench coats, reflections are used in both mirrors and clouded puddles to heighten the idea of fragmented personalities and schizophrenia, just as the use of sepia printing suggests the murkiness to Fisher's subconscious. The neon lights that breaks the composition of the frame, usually from a police light or a flickering television set, act as beacons to the hidden depths of Fisher's mind - whenever some moment of remembrance occurs, a light will often be present to signify to the audience the usual emotion connected with the colour (blue - recollection, green - sickness, red - anger etc) - just as the use of double exposures and heavy sound-design build the flash-backs, dreamscapes and memories within memories.

The other actors in the film are used like puppets to an even greater extent. Whereas Fisher is here for our benefit, they are there for his. Osborn for example, who is played with ailing charm by the great British actor Esmonde Knight (fans of Michael Powell will be familiar), gives the information that will lead both plot and dénouement, whilst the casting of Me-Me Lia as Kim again subverts the usual preconceptions of the femme-fatale by being a teasing, manipulative prostitute - with dark Asian looks that undercut the genre's usual 'wasp-ish' stereotypes. Her character presents both complications and a love interestsidekick for Fisher, as well as other more meaningful purposes as the film moves towards the ambiguous climax - suggesting a state of abandonment and complete mental breakdown, as the shocking twists begin to pile up. Surpassing both A Clockwork Orange and 1984 in it's subversive attack and artistic vision, The Element of Crime presents to us a definitively dark and unrelenting image of Europe, in which chaos has overthrown order, analytical approaches to police work have been replaced by Gestapo bully tactics, and the chance of a changing season is nothing but a mere pipe dream.

This is a staggering and inventive mish-mash of ideas and stylistic references that present us with an alluring potion of haunting images, heart-stopping bursts of violence, elaborate philosophies, unashamed pretension and a plot that writhes right the way through to its unflinching climax... which, coming from one of contemporary cinema's most important auteurs, should not be missed. Those familiar with his later works, such as Breaking the Waves, The Idiots and Dogville, may be surprised by von Trier's bold grasp of staggering cinematic technique and intelligent understanding of the conventions of post-war film-noir... something even more apparent in his later masterpiece, Europa.


Review by Graham Greene from the Internet Movie Database.