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Lars Von Trier could have been the next Terry Gilliam

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s five days of Lars Von Trier, as we single out some of the Danish director’s more unheralded triumphs in honor of his latest, Nymphomaniac.

The Element Of Crime (1984)

Long before Lars Von Trier spearheaded Dogme 95, an ascetic movement designed to strip away aesthetic artifice, he was a filmmaker of grand stylization. The Element Of Crime, his feature-length debut, bears little resemblance to his later output. Drenched in yellow-tinged sepia tones, incessant symbolism, and indirect (and often pretentious) dialogue, the film tells the future-noir tale of a detective, Fisher (Michael Elphick), who recounts under hypnosis his trip from Cairo back to Europe, the latter now a waterlogged hellhole. Tattered garments, windswept debris, rotting animals (specifically horses), and moldy, lantern-illuminated locales provide evidence of some sort of Biblical flood, while also making the movie resemble a humorless version of one of Terry Gilliam’s dystopian dreams.


In this visually striking milieu, Fisher attempts to use the now-discredited investigative practices of his mentor Osborne (Esmond Knight) to solve a series of gruesome homicides; the culprit, as it turns out, may be The Lotto Murderer, a serial killer who—according to Osborne—died three years earlier. Fisher’s inquiry takes him from one wretched place to the next, with Von Trier staging his protagonist’s journey as a surreal passage into his own dark subconscious. A prostitute named Kim (Meme Lai) also factors into the mission, which eventually has Fisher retracing the past steps of his suspect. Yet narrative particulars are of secondary concern to Von Trier, who uses topsy-turvy cinematography, off-kilter close-ups, and hallucinatory imagery to give his material the appearance of a hazy nightmare. Ultimately revealing itself to be as much a quest for identity as a straightforward procedural, The Element Of Crime is a baffling and beguiling work, more interested in creating a mood of swampy disorientation than in providing straightforward answers to its questions.

Availability: The Element Of Crime is available on Criterion DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to stream on Hulu Plus.