Fisher, an ex-cop, returns to his old beat somewhere in northern Europe after a thirteen-year hiatus in Cairo. His former mentor and role model, author of a treatise called "The Element of Crime", asks him to solve a series of murders involving lottery ticket sellers. Guided by the theories put forth in the book, Fischer retraces the steps of a suspect, Harry Grey, as recorded in a three-year-old police surveillance report.Written by
Eddi Sommer <email@example.com>
Fantasy is OK, but my job to keep you on the right track. We are after the facts. You seem to return to Cairo and me whenever you have a problem. Two months ago you left Cairo, your wife, everything for a police job in Europe. Now you are back haunted by headaches. If you want me to help you get rid of these headaches, we must go back two months in the time. Back to where it all started. All I know... Europe has become an obsession for you.
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This is yet another film that easily conforms to my theory of Subjective Reality (see Kafka), to be honest it may not even be my theory, but whose ever it was, it has been distorted to my own way of thinking. The Element of Crime begins with a burnt-out cop (Fisher, played by Michael Elphick) who has found his way back to Cairo (after a strenuous case in Europe), being placed under hypnosis by a therapist so the root of Fisher's problems can be discovered. From the first frame Lars von Trier and cinematographer Tom Elling set up the haunting atmosphere, from the shot of the donkey rolling in the dirt, to the drab, blurry images of Egypt. But after Fisher has been placed under hypnosis the world we see is a world of constant darkness, and where the only light is the sludgy yellow sepia. This is not a stylish decision, merely a way of highlighting the murkiness of Fisher's memory, as he digs deeper into the mystery of Harry Grey we soon see the odd flash of a blue police light, von Trier's way of pointing out significant moments in Fisher's recollection.
The pull of The Element of Crime (the film) is that part of Fisher's training refers to The Element of Crime (the book), a journal for catching criminals that involves the pursuer putting themselves into the shoes of the criminal, to live, sleep and breath their lives until they are almost one with them. And that is what leads Fisher on his path, as he is soon recreating the crime scenes and scenarios that Grey might have gone through. Now this all sounds very conventional, but no. Von Trier deliberately paces the film slowly, allowing all the characters to be set-up and, even if they are not really there for any other purpose than to drive the plot. The character of Kim for example, her function is nothing more than plot devise (or to take her clothes off as one reviewer put it). These are all hallmarks of subjective reality, that none of the characters other than Fisher possesses any force in the outcome of their world.
This being von Trier's first film, and me being aware that his cinematic style has changed somewhat over the years, I was expecting the film to look nothing like his other work, but there wasn't too much of a difference, there may have been more attention to mise-en-scene and sound design (most obvious in the excellent sequence where Fisher and Kim recreate the night when Grey met his mistress on the bus), but the film looked so much like the Kingdom that it was familiar, I was more shocked when I saw the drastically different Europa. Now that is a major difference, where as Europa looked like the work of a master film-maker continuing his evolution, The Element of Crime looked like the film of a young director, trying out new techniques, referencing his hero's and gleefully deconstructing the role of film-noir (again handled in Europa).
But the fact that the film looks small scale does not devalue it one bit, as a first film it's an accomplished piece that shows the growing talent that would be nurtured into Breaking the Waves. If at times too complicated and too self knowing for its own good, it's best to allow the film to wash over you, putting yourself, much like Fisher into a dream-like state. The acting is good, but not as good as von Trier would later wrangle out of actors, and for a British audience it's a bit disconcerting to see the star of Boon performing sex scenes and slipping further into his own insanity. So, Part art-house thriller, part film-noir pastiche and part eighties pop video, The Element of Crime is by no mean as easy film to categorise or to understand. It is however a film that deserves to be studied and interpreted, if you are to get the most out of it, a true work of cinematic art. 10/10
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