A movie so amber-hued it looks like it was shot through PISS CHRIST, Lars Von Trier’s THE ELEMENT OF CRIME is a very wet movie. The crime and the search are the armature on which Von Trier hangs his true interests: Scandinavians droning on in an apocalyptic orange glow. It swept the big Danish film awards, and it’s a unique neo-noir/dystopian meditation on the wetness that is existence. Or something.
Detective Fisher tells his story in flashback to his Egyptian psychiatrist. In a waterlogged Germany, Fisher is on the cold trail of Harry Grey, a suspect in a string of child murders. He consults his mentor, Osborne, the writer of a book called The Element of Crime, who insists that Harry Grey is dead. Fisher goes searching for Grey because more murders are occurring. All the trails lead back to Osbourne, but Fisher keeps looking. Osborne is looking for Grey, even though he claims to think he’s dead, and is being threatened by Grey. Or is he? In order to find the killer, Fisher must risk–No! Yes!–entering the mind of the killer, thinking like the killer. You get the idea.
The crime story is an excuse for some heavy spiritual navel gazing. The world is sinking into the rising waters, everyone’s a crook or a liar, and who really cares if some kids who sell lottery tickets are being killed when the whole world seems to exist in a state of perpetual, rainy night? The movie floats on a sound design of distant, vaguely Indian music and bursts of awkward lines (Actual line from the film: “I want you to screw god into me.”) while the characters float through the German dread. The standout scene of Fisher having sex on the hood of a Volkswagen while his partner holds onto the wipers (it’s raining of course) can’t break the film out of its weird emotional monotony. You either like this thing, or you hate it.
David Fincher mentioned ELEMENT in connection to his visual style on ALIEN 3. I like Lars Von Trier’s earlier movies (I think ANTICHRIST might have put me off him forever), but I acknowledge this one is probably hard to take unless you like getting high in front of the tube at midnight. It has a druggy, narcotic quality, not something to see if you’re looking for a thriller. Tom Elling’s photography keeps the near-monochromatic from getting dull. Fisher, played by Michael Elphick, narrates in a gravelly drone that makes Harrison Ford’s BLADE RUNNER narration sound vividly alive.
If you love BR and ALIEN 3, you might dig this. It lulled me into a state of boozy melancholy. If the solution to the crime surprises anyone I’ll be shocked, but this is Von Trier at his artiest; any entertainment gotten by an audience of non-misanthropes is probably accidental.