APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE ELEMENT OF CRIME (1984)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael Elphick, Meme Lai, Esmond Knight, Jerold Wells

PLOT: Under hypnosis, a detective recalls a case where he tried to catch a serial killer by retracing his steps using investigatory techniques pioneered by his mentor in his book “The Element of Crime.”

Still from The Element of Crime (1984)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Element of Crime tells a (literally) hypnotic story soaked in doom and moral decay, with the film looking like it’s lit by the smoldering embers of an immolated Europe.

COMMENTS: Although he had made a 57-minute student film previously, The Element of Crime is Lars von Trier’s first true feature and his first commercial work. Though the atmosphere is narcotic, the work shows the energy of youth—the bold choice of shooting in an almost entirely orange palette being the most obvious example of the youthful preference for style over substance. The film does not show many hints of the shock provocateur von Trier would later become, nor is his edge of Jacobean cruelty fully honed yet, but those qualities are not missed in this dreamy mood piece.

Von Trier leans on noirish motifs, putting his own strange spin on them: a monochrome palette (jaundiced instead of shadowy), voiceover narration (sometimes supplied by the hypnotist), rain (constant downpours of almost parodic quantities), a femme fatale, and moral slippage (our detective’s mentor, Osborne, has clearly gone mad, and we justifiably fear that our hero may really become the killer he emulates). Other concerns are new: as the detective becomes more obsessed with the algorithmic process of retracing the steps of the predator, the police establishment grows increasingly fascist—suspects are beaten, and the police shave their heads to resemble their leader, Kramer, who prefers issuing edicts through a bullhorn. The rise of brute force, as opposed to the failed intellectualism of Osborne’s system?

The hero, Fisher, splashes through a world of constant rain and puddles. He is submerged; in his memory, in his subconscious, and in the procedure of entering a psychotic killer’s mindset, a procedure that threatens to pull him under. It’s no wonder that Fisher’s last words in the film are “you can wake me up now. Are you there?” It’s the plea of a man drowning in his own mind, the fished who no longer believes himself the fisher.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…here’s a chance to catch a master of bizarre lighting and film stock experimentation at an early point in his career… Unsettling and odd, it’s the perfect film for a dreary, rainy day.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle

(This movie was nominated for review by future 366 contributor Caleb Moss, who said the story “seems to be a mix between Naked Lunch and Brazil.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Where to watch The Element of Crime

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