5.10.2012

My summer with Lars: "The Element of Crime" (1984)



This summer, I’ve roped a few brave friends and colleagues into joining me as I work my way through the filmography of the inimitable Lars von Trier, starting with his first feature, 1984’s The Element of Crime, and proceeding chronologically up through last year’s Melancholia.  I’ve been a fan of von Trier’s work ever since I saw Breaking the Waves (1996) as a young teenager, so I figured I’d make this an excuse to revisit my favorites, re-consider some of the duds, and assess the handful of his films that I’ve missed.  I’m also using this as an opportunity to check out Linda Badley’s recently published monograph on von Trier’s films; it promises to be a solid read, and it’s always interesting to hear women’s perspectives on von Trier’s work, given his tendentious handling of gender, sex, and female victimization.  All in all, it promises to be a fun and exciting project. 

We broke ground last Sunday evening with Crime, the film with which vT arrived on the international film scene some twenty-eight years ago (it’s remarkable to think he’s been around that long).  This was my first viewing of the film, and I regrettably found the plot—a serial-killer mystery in the postmodern neo-noir style—somewhat lacking.  I recall Europa (1991), which along with this film and Epidemic (1987) makes up vT’s so-called “Europe trilogy,” being similarly unengaging in the plot department; is it possible that vT didn’t really learn the finer points of storytelling until he began work on his Danish television series The Kingdom in ’94?  Either way, what Crime lacks in content it makes up in style: this is a visually impressive debut film, shot in an expressionistic palette of dirt-browns and piss-yellows.  (The lighting and color effects are all the more striking for having been done in-camera, as I learned from Badley’s book.)  Even as a relatively young filmmaker, vT shows a remarkable command of tone, mood, mise en scene, and camerawork of near-Tarkovskian intricacy, all of which he combines to create a hellish nightmare vision of Europe populated by gimps, maniacs, and child murderers—in the company of whom vT tellingly includes himself (he plays a sleazy, sweaty hotel desk clerk known as the “Schmuck of Ages,” pictured above).      

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