The Element of Crime (Denmark, 1984):
(Forbrydelsens Element)

The dead donkey hoisted out of the filthy river is a Buñuel memento, though the smudged dystopia of Lars von Trier's first feature is mostly Baby Tarkovsky, the future as swamped factory filmed through a smeared fishbowl. The themes are already von Trier's, and he can keep them -- decay, subterranean passageways, nudging neurosis, and hypnosis. The latter occasions the elaborate esoterica, a rotund mesmer in a sweltering Cairo saloon, monkey on his shoulder, leading the dour detective hero (Michael Elphick) back to his continent through mental time-traveling, though "Europe is not the same." Indeed, the place is a sulfurous purgatory of horse carriages, crumby earth, industrial fires, billowing sheets, sweat, and, of course, a woman-mutilating serial killer; for the case, Elphick looks up his aged mentor (Esmond Knight), whose titular book on criminology has been tagged an anachronism, possibly along with the notion of lucidity. Symbols, symbols everywhere, a pillow fashioned out of bureaucratic stamps, communal bungee-jumping, an Asian hooker (MeMe Lai) buggered on the hood of a VW Bug, flaming cars superimposed over rainy windshields, all in the fatuously elaborate style von Trier would later decry -- wanton craning, odd angles, ponderous neo-noir thundering, hammering rustiness. An indolent reverse tracking shot for an old man's memories reinforces the film as a swelling subconscious, but even as a wadding mental landscape its obscurantism remains unendurably pedantic: the relentless mise-en-scène is a monster of its own, yet von Trier is too much of an ironist to trust his own despair. Utterly polluted waters, oozing contempt and affected hollowness, the elements of a cinematic crime, indeed. With Jerold Wells, Ahmed El Shenawi, and Astrid Henning-Jensen.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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