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.
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
Opening a trilogy of films dealing with the effect and decline of post-war Europe, this extraordinary, heavily referential psychological thriller marked the first cinematic outing from Danish maverick (and dogma godfather) Lars von Trier. Unfolding in an undisclosed European country, 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.
Building on ideas such as faith, redemption, love and mental anguish, familiar in symbolic rigour to the works of Ingmar Bergman, but with a fragmented composition and style aching to the framing of Andrei Tarkovsky or industrial surrealism of David Lynch, 'The Element of Crime' presents an alluring potion of haunting images, heart stopping bursts of violence, convoluted philosophies, unashamed pretension and a plot that writhes right the way through to its unflinching climax. From the opening images of a donkey basking in the hot sands of a Cairo desert, to the waterlogged depiction of Europe, filled with burnt-out cars, decaying animal carcasses and 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 main character.
Fisher is a washed out former detective, who after living in Cairo for a number of years returned 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, the set comprising of one solitary wall and a desk, conversing with the doctor, who promises to help him find the root of his problems. Here von Trier is able to utilise the simplicity of the set, and one of his own favourite narrative devises, hypnosis -- as he blends together the character's psyche with the action in the film. From this point the entire film takes place from Fisher's point-of-view, his voice-over only rarely broken by the psychiatrist to keep his story on track.
In the lead role, Michael Elphick acquits himself admirably, this was back when he was an actor of some reputable standing, before the cockney 'comedy' antics of 'Boon' made him something of a joke (in Britain anyway). Here he is used more like a puppet than a traditional actor, manipulated by von Trier to fit with the framing and style of the film, though 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. 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 light 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 flashbacks, dreamscapes and memories within memories.
The other actors in the film are used like puppets to a 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, gives the information that will lead both plot and dénouement, whilst the casting of Me-Me Lai as Kim again subverts the usual preconceptions of the femme-fatal by being a teasing, manipulative prostitute -- with dark Asian looks that undercut the usual 'wasp' stereotypes. Her character presents both complications and a love interest cum sidekick 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 'A Clockwork Orange' and '1984' in its 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 more than a pipe dream. This is a staggering and inventive mish-mash of ideas and stylistic references that, coming from one of modern cinema's brightest talents, should not be missed. Von Trier would evolve his style throughout the 'Europa-trilogy' before maturing with 'The Kingdom' and his most successful work 'Breaking the Waves' -- all further proof of his immense filmmaking abilities.
Review by Nriks from the Internet Movie Database.