Sunday, December 16, 2007

#80: The Element of Crime

The Element of Crime, 1984, directed by Lars von Trier, written by Niels Vørsel and Lars von Trier.

I rarely like dream sequences. They're usually a solution of last resort when a filmmaker needs to cram in some exposition about a character's mental state and can't find a way to do it elegantly. Even in Ratatouille—which I think is near-perfect—Linguini's nightmare about Ego doesn't add anything we don't see more clearly in other scenes. And when it comes to taking dream sequences seriously, using Freudian dream-logic to articulate things that characters hide from themselves and others, I'm with Nabokov: "Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts." So that's dream sequences. But what about a dream movie? For me, one of the salient features of all of my nightmares is my inability to leave, that moment when you would like to wake up but are unable to. You can't capture that in two minutes of film, but you might be able to in a feature. Of course, then the question becomes, "But why would you want to?" Lars von Trier's The Element of Crime proposes an answer, but it's not exactly the one you might expect.

The film is a cinematic nightmare in at least two senses: it captures the logic of dreams in a way most films don't, and it's a singularly unpleasant viewing experience. This has a lot to do with the look that von Trier and cinematographer Tom Elling came up with, which is (I hope) unique in film history. Here's a still from early in the film, of a horse sinking in debris-strewn water:

That's not a brief, strangely colored insert: the entire film is lit with that same sickly yellow. It looks like Piss Christ: The Motion Picture. Von Trier and Elling got the look by using sodium vapor lamps (now illuminating a grocery store parking lot near you), and it's unforgettable. Which is not to say it was necessarily a good idea.

Michael Elphick stars as Fisher, a man undergoing hypnotherapy in an attempt to cure his headaches. After an hour of staring at The Element of Crime's palette, I knew exactly how he felt. As the film opens, Fisher is living in Cairo, where he's apparently seeking medical care on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark:

N. B.: this doctor's office is in the "real world" that opens Fisher's hypnotized memory of his last trip to Europe. So to say the film is expressionist is an understatement. Fisher's memory is a muddled pastiche of film noir and serial killer films, with a touch of Apocalypse Now thrown in for good measure. It's a bit like what T. S. Eliot might have produced instead of "The Wasteland" if he'd known film noir instead of Dante. Here's how Fisher begins telling his story:

I'm a policeman. I've finally been called back to Europe to solve a murder case.

Note that he's telling it like a dream, not a memory; he might have begun "I'm an X-wing pilot" or "I'm a trombone." The Europe he's been called back to is unrecognizeable, even to him; the first time we see him there, he's adrift in a boat, yelling that someone has "moved the fucking stairs." The murder case he's been called back about is actually cases: a serial killer has resurfaced long after his case was supposedly closed by Fisher's discredited mentor Osborne:

Osborne was a criminologist with an unconventional method that will be familiar to fans of crime movies (and which John Woo took very literally): in order to catch a criminal, you must become him. Osborne refers to his method somewhat cryptically as "the Element of Crime." To anticipate where the serial killer will next surface, Fisher duplicates a preparatory trip the killer took before his first crimes. Fisher drives the same route, stays in the same hotels, wears a hat with the killer's name on it, and even sleeps with the same woman. Does he end up identifying a little too well with the killer? Are the killer and the cop assigned to catch him, in the end, not so different? Well, I don't want to give anything away.

Although the movie predates the long string of serial killer films of the 90s, all the tropes of the genre are there. The killer has a grand design he's enacting with geometric precision:

There's the obligatory autopsy sequence with the inappropriately cheerful coroner:

There's the repurposing of things associated with childhood, from the repetitive nursery rhyme nonsense some characters mutter (e.g., "books and bother killed my mother") to the childish drawings that cover key documents like this one:

And there's even the misogyny that lurks just beneath the surface of so many of these films, mixed with more menophobia than Carrie and Superbad combined.

But if you noticed the name "Harry Grey" a few stills back, you've figured out that Von Trier's cinematic touchstones are less De Palma and more Carol Reed—apparently Harry Lime sounded too brightly colored for such a monochromatic film. Von Trier evokes Reed's Vienna throughout the film in small ways and large:

That's appropriate, since like The Third Man, The Element of Crime takes it as a given that Europe is in its last stages of moral and physical collapse. Everyone Fisher meets seems to be on their last legs, and the sets are uniformly decaying. The references to Apocalypse Now are a tougher fit, since that film dealt with such a uniquely American catastrophe. They're there, though: Jerold Wells in the still above is meant to remind you of Brando, and there's a great helicopter shot later in the film that's should have "Ride of the Valkyries" playing over it:

Kramer, the police chief Wells is playing, goes so far as to wander around a chaotic excavation yelling "Who's in charge of this operation?" like Willard. Finally, Von Trier tips his hat once or twice to Tarkovsky, starting with the opening shot: a donkey trying to get to its feet like the wounded horse in Andrei Rublev.

The problem with this hodgepodge of cinematic references is that they don't make the film any less tedious. Von Trier does create a pretty convincing nightmare: there are plot points that almost make sense, vague suggestions of ominous things happening off-camera, and more textbook Freudian puns than Bringing Up Baby. But unless you're really emotionally invested in the decline and fall of European culture—in which case, you're probably blogging about Islamofascism, not watching arthouse movies—The Element of Crime isn't going to connect as anything more than a stylistic exercise. If you want a moving depiction of a nightmare, your time would be better spent with "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities."

So what's Von Trier's mash up of film noir, cultural anxiety, and monochromatic cinematography in service of, exactly? My theory is that it's in service of Lars Von Trier. This was his first feature, and from a game theory perspective, The Element of Crime is kind of a brilliant opening move. The script is just a draft away from being a conventional serial killer film. If a few of the stranger lines were excised, it would have been easy to raise money to get the movie made. The sodium lighting makes the film instantly memorable; you can't mistake a frame of it for anything else. And the fragments of other films Von Trier has shored against his ruins are critic bait if I've ever seen it. If Von Trier had made the serial killer film The Element of Crime is very close to becoming, it would probably have gone straight to video. If he'd announced upfront that his plan was to make an incoherent mess of references to other films, and color the whole thing like urine besides, I doubt he would have found a willing producer. By combining the two, he made a grand entrance, and hasn't slowed down since.

While I find The Element of Crime difficult to watch (it really is nightmarish), I can't deny that it has style. And style, like personality, goes a long way. In Von Trier's case, it took him to Cannes, where he was nominated for the Golden Palm and left with a Technical Grand Prize. I don't like this movie. But I do think Von Trier is a magnificent bastard for making it.


  • The only other Von Trier film I've seen is Dancer in the Dark, which I thought Stephanie Zacharek summed up pretty well for Salon: Von Trier's "movies are meat grinders he feeds his characters through." The Element of Crime doesn't really fit that description, but only because it's impossible to give a damn about any of the film's characters. Both films are as cruel to female characters as Brazil. In The Element of Crime, women are either there to be loathed and then fucked and then loathed again, like Me Me Lai, who plays Fischer's lover:

    Or they're anonymous victims, like nearly every other woman we see in the film:

    So Björk sort of got off easy, in the sense that she didn't have to feign sexual ecstasy while leaning over the hood of a Volkswagon.

  • Von Trier has a brief cameo, as the clerk at one of the film's many decaying hotels.

    His character is just as charming as he looks.

  • The DVD also includes Tranceformer, a profile of Von Trier directed by Stig Björkman and Fredrik von Krusenstjerna. It was made while Von Trier was directing Breaking the Waves, and is notable for two reasons. The first is a clip of Von Trier saying, "Shall we skip the niceties and get on with the interview?" on camera, presumably after the interviewer asked him how he was doing or complimented his work. It's a nice passive-aggressive thing for the filmmakers to have included, in that it makes Von Trier look like a jerk. The second is the interview footage with Peter Aalbæk Jensen, who produced Breaking the Waves. Jensen appears to have modeled his on camera persona (Producer with a capital P!) after Orson Welles in The Muppet Movie.

  • The Element of Crime contains a nice example of the art direction colliding with the script. Throughout the film, we see copies of Osborne's monograph, The Element of Crime in various editions, from a leather-bound hardcover to an Arabic translation. The graphic design of each different version is well designed and appropriate; this is the kind of detail I really appreciate when filmmakers take the time to get right). But Osborne doesn't have a first name, which means that the trade paperback floating around the floor of Fischer's car looks a little unbalanced. Click the image for a full-sized version:

  • Most awkward Freudianism in a film full of awkward Freudianim: Kim tells Fisher "I want to show you something," and the next shot is the two of them on a boat, sailing down a dark, wet passage.

    Fisher's therapist says he's gone "down the drain... into the tunnel of love." Save us, Nabokov!


djproject said...

interesting analysis.

i actually did a composition based on this film where i was trying to find a sound and series of sounds evoking the colours: a main one for the yellow and then another one for the odd snatches of blue. i think it captured better the disorienting mood and unsettling vibe than the colours. but then again, the point of cinematography - especially the stylish variety - is to provoke the mind's eye =].

perhaps one of my favourite moments is when fisher is watching one of osborne's lecture (very dead-pan pedagogical/pandatic), the crowd gets restless and someone comes out, shoots a starter pistol in the air and declares "remember, we are europeans." i like it because ... well, for someone who would make a trilogy of films scathingly attacking the united states, it's nice to see him stick it into that other continent =]

Mark said...


Glad you're posting again! This film ranked among my least liked movies that nevertheless makes me want to see more films by the same director. What clear evidence of talent! I didn't catch the Harry Lime / Harry Gray connection (thanks!). For me,this film evoked the mood of its contemporary, Blade Runner, albeit on a budget.

Variety Lights will be a breath of fresh air after this one. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and I"m looking forward to your comments.

Anonymous said...

Superb review. But you can't judge Uncle Lars on Element of Crime and Dancer in the Dark. Element of Crime isn't much like anything else he's done except Europa, and Dancer in the Dark is... crap. Check out Breaking the Waves and Dogville and best of all The Five Obstructions if you want to see a mad bastard being watchable as well as just mad and bastardly.

Anonymous said...

Go to the bottom of the page, click "Manisfesto" and read. When you get to the end, click "Vow of Chastity", and you'll see a list of absurd rules endorsed by Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg at the bottom.

Now think through Dancer in the Dark again.

Scott W. said...

Following the logic of "Unbreakable," the existence of Lars Von Trier requires the existence of Kevin Smith. Which is good and which is bad? It doesn't matter. As long as these two idiots balance each other at the poles of cinema art, we can all breathe easy.

Anonymous said...

Matthew, have you seen John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye, starring Brando? Because if you hated the look of this film you might not want to...

As for Von Trier himself, I think I share Jonathan Rosenbaum's opinion of him as an "occasionally talented charlatan." He's like an arthouse William Castle, and that's giving him a lot of credit.

Chris said...

Matt - Great review. This film is one of the reasons I love Criterion. Challenging and almost threatening in its visual provocations, this is the type of film that, were it not on Criterion, I probably wouldn't have checked out.

Still, that doesn't mean I liked it (I didn't), but after reading your review (although I'd say "review" really doesn't capture the great service you do to these movies) it makes me interested enough to revisit, perhaps with Breaking the Waves as someone else mentioned to see where such a debut eventually took him.

And looking back, I can't believe I didn't make the connection to The Third Man. Looking forward to #81.

Unknown said...

Great insight into this film, which I haven't seen but am interested in, I doubt I will actively seek this one out.

I would also like to commend Breaking the Waves and (to a lesser extent) The Five Obstructions.

Tiako said...

Lars von Trier has struck me as a somewhat unpleasant person. One example is that after he made Dogville, somebody asked him whether he felt a little unfair criticizing America so harshly when he has never actually been there. So, Lars von Trier made Manderlay pretty much out of spite.

Naturally, this has no effect on how good his work is. I get the impression that Stanley Kubrick, for example, was a world class asshole, and Yasujiro Ozu was stunningly callous to his crew (there is a nasty story with him and a young Shohei Immamura). I'm just saying that your impression from the interview seems correct.

Notas Sobre Creación Cultural e Imaginarios Sociales said...

Lars is the definition of a mad genius and this is the most accesible entry in his Europa trilogy.
As far as I knew, Dogville and Manderlay were both part of a trilogy planned long before that someone accused Lars of anti-Americanism. So it's not fair to blame Manderlay on spite.
Sadly with his depression we won't get that concluding chapter anytime soon.
And I completely agree with the disconnection between director's personality and their work. The most recent example I got was "Gone Baby Gone" which proved how Ben Affleck can be a complete smug ass, that can still make some good movies.

Tiako said...

After seeing your comments, I checked and, sure enough, I had got my story wrong. After making Dancer in the Dark, he was criticized for making an anti-American movie without ever going to America. This "inspired" him to make the trilogy. Source:

The best quote is this: "Von Trier has said the anger 'Dancer in the Dark' generated among US critics has inspired him to keep writing about America. He savoured the conflict."

So, yeah, he pretty much did it to spite his critics.

Matthew Dessem said...

dj project,

Is your composition available online somewhere? It sounds interesting.

Matthew Dessem said...


Yeah, Von Trier's obvious talent in producing this movie I disliked made me want to force him to direct a noir or a horror film or something, with a producer who has final cut. There aren't many directors I wish had less of a free hand, but he's one of them.

Like you, I liked Variety Lights a hell of a lot, as I hope my essay makes clear.

Matthew Dessem said...

Mr. Chan,

I want to see The Five Obstructions, but the others I imagine would sit sadly in their Netflix envelopes for a month or two, until I sent them back. That could change if I like The Five Obstructions.

Matthew Dessem said...


I'm not sure what you mean; Dancer in the Dark wasn't a Dogme 95 movie, obviously. If I make an absurd rule ("I will film only with handmade shoebox cameras, one frame at a time!") and then use an Arriflex for my next movie, does that make it a bold breakaway from my earlier style?

Matthew Dessem said...


I like your hypothetical poles of cinema. But who's in the middle, half-Kevin Smith, half-Lars Von Trier?

Matthew Dessem said...


I haven't seen Reflections in a Golden Eye. If it has that color pallete, thanks for the warning!

Matthew Dessem said...


Thanks! I also would never have seen this were it not on Criterion (and that's why I haven't seen Breaking the Waves. One of these days...

Matthew Dessem said...


Great. One guy recommends The Five Obstructions more than Breaking the Waves. One guy recommends Breaking the Waves more than The Five Obstructions. Am I going to have to watch both of these now?

Matthew Dessem said...


Yeah, he seemed pretty confrontational in the interview. I don't know much about Kubrick or Ozu's behavior, but I suspect they never made a film out of spite...

Matthew Dessem said...


Haven't seen Gone Baby Gone yet, but I'm looking forward to it. I've always thought Affleck was smarter than people gave him credit for.

Wotan said...

I thought this film was suffocating, in a way that makes one high before you fade to black...If the thought of drowning excites you, then this film is for you- I enjoyed it very much.

Timothy Liebe said...

MD: "I don't know much about Kubrick or Ozu's behavior, but I suspect they never made a film out of spite..."

Matthew - what would you call THE SHINING, then? Besides the First Horror Film With No Horror In It? That movie made me lose whatever respect I had left for Kubrick after the admittedly beautifully-composed but pointless BARRY LYNDON.

I like von Trier's ZENTROPA and THE KINGDOM (an absurdist four-hour "haunted hospital" miniseries - far better than STEPHEN KING'S KINGDOMW HOSPITAL), and recommend both very highly. As for being an asshole - well, we are talking a guy who shot DOGVILLE in the studio he founded to produce porno movies in...!

Anonymous said...

Timothy Liebe: not only that, but he also reused the prison set made for Dancer in the Dark in one of the pornos he produced, after painting it hot pink.

Matthew: Don't put too much stock in what you hear about Trier through the media, since he's notorious for making things up in interviews etc. He's known as a prankster in Denmark.

If you want to see him do horror, try his recent Antichrist.

Timothy Liebe said...

I presume the "hot pink" comment was in addition to mine - and as I don't know von Trier personally, I can just go off what he claims. If he likes pranking the World Media by claiming he's a Porn King - hey, whatever! Better Porn than more Dogme 95 "pure cinema" nonsense, if you ask me - because what makes films wonderful is that they're a big old mangy impure mutt of an artform.

I think von Trier's a case of a very talented director who, after some marvelous early work, started disappearing up his own bunghole seeking new filmmaking challenges. Coppola did with starting with ONE FROM THE HEART, and hasn't found his way back to making plain old good movies yet.

Anonymous said...

Here's the frustrating thing about Lars von Trier...

So, you've got this Dogme 95 thing. Now, on the surface, the idea of reflexively reacting against phoniness in Hollywood movies makes sense -- I'll even allow for the hokier arty cliche that there is some objective truth that can be portrayed in film. The rules themselves seem fairly well-designed to replicate the realities of low-budget filmmaking -- if you accept what seems prima facie obvious, that most filmmakers get worse as their limitations are removed, this seems like the smartest way to try and fight back against the stagnation of the aging artist. [Von Trier calls them obstructions; I prefer "limitations" because of the old Orson Welles quote.]

But, at the same time, it's ultimately frustrating that he takes what should be a pretty solid idea about revitalizing film and makes it largely into a tool to promote himself. I can't even say he's promoting his own genuine views, because he doesn't actually *believe* it. He made it overly aggressive and simplistic in order to make it confrontational -- and, judging by the responses here, or any time his name is brought up, it worked; there are still people who hate him for Dogme 95 and it's literally a list of things. He's just being provocative and confrontational for his own sake. His Dogme 95 movie ('The Idiots') is fairly terrible, another example of something designed primarily to promote himself. It's not that it's a good movie, it's that now he made a movie about people pretending to be retarded who have unsimulated group sex with real penetration, which is good for his overall rep. As long as people don't actually SEE the movie, anyway.

Matthew Dessem said...

Yeah, I think one of the things about Von Trier is it's impossible to tell when he's being sincere or just saying things to shock and self-promote. I'm all for shocking & self-promotion in public life, but not as much in film, and it sounds like The Idiots is on the wrong side of that line.

Timothy Liebe said...

Anonymous: "if you accept what seems prima facie obvious, that most filmmakers get worse as their limitations are removed"

Yes, I've heard that line countless times - okay, I've even used it myself once or twice (usually attached to "blah blah George Lucas blah blah")! OTOH, I often worry that there's a bit of Leftist snobbery to the underlying sentiment that "Genius Must Struggle, b/c it's never a good idea to give a filmmaker everything s/he needs."

While it's hard to dispute that the original STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE is a much better movie than any of the three prequels, there's also a value to the kind of spectacle that only plenty of impure cinema-only artifice can create. Let's face it, the only "pure" cinema out there are the first "street scene" films made, unedited home movies and some of the works of Andy Warhol - because cinema became "artificial" the moment anything got staged specifically for the camera, and definitely so when some genius camera operator deliberately moved in or shifted an angle to emphasize one action over another.

I think von Trier's "Dogme 95" was one part pranksterism, one part boredom - and one part Art School Liberal Guilt. I point out I say this as something of a Leftist myself - but I'd far rather watch somebody fail from an excess of Will than a failure of one.

KinchStalker said...

If you're generally not a fan of dream sequences, maybe it's a good thing that Criterion doesn't have Tarkovsky's Mirror - it would break my heart to hear you bash that.

Matthew Dessem said...

I've come around a bit on dream sequences; I think Hannibal (the show) uses them very well, for instance. (The Sopranos, not as much). And while I haven't seen Mirror, Andrei Rublev is one of my all-time favorites. So I doubt I'd bash it unless the dream sequences were particularly ham-handed.

foreign film fan said...

I loved the element of crime though the plot is almost incomprehension.
Dancer in the dark is all a killer movie. you know whats coming and you cant stop and you get all the let downs and depression to song and dance. what a movie wow. I have seen it several times and it makes me sick every time I watch it.
ps breaking the waves is technically one of his best movies but I was unmoved. I dont guess a movie has ever been made like element of crime or dancer in the dark.