When I see or hear the word “stylized” for a film I am immediately suspicious. I can generally rely on the foundation that make Peter Greenaway’s films are stylized and I like most of them. Or they can point to films like Damnation by Hungarian director Gela Tarr which go beyond, well, damnation.
Lars von Trier is a stylist whom I typically enjoy, but The Elements of Crime just doesn’t work for me. Fisher (Michael Elphick) sees an odd Egyptian hypnotist/therapist. The therapist is a large man with a small monkey on his shoulder and his “office” seems to be a hookah bar. This therapist takes Fisher back to Europe more than a decade earlier.
Europe that seems like Rome that fell into the shape of current day Venice. The area is controlled by a police chief who looks and acts like Mussolini. Fisher is in town to see his former advisor and mentor, Osborne (Esmond Knight). Osborne was an instructor at the police academy who wrote a controversial book The Element of Crime; when we see him, Osborne is disgraced.
The Element book is a psychological how-to book to help find a criminal. The thesis is that the investigator does his best to become (for lack of a better word) the criminal. The idea is simple enough: think and act like them and you can interpret and find them. Fisher tries this with the help of an Asian prostitute Kim (Me Me Lai). The murder in question is a serial killer believed to be Harry Gray whose victims are young and poor girls who sell lotto tickets.
That is all that need be said of the plot. Unfortunately the plot sounds far more interesting than the film.
Mr. von Trier is one of a kind of director that many filmmakers could list as an influence. He does know what he is doing behind the camera when making stylized films like this one or more mainstream films like Dancer in the Dark; and he is probably hell on editors. I have liked the films I have seen to date; but I have said in other reviews that every great artist is allowed at least one crappy piece--The Element of Crime is Mr. von Trier’s crappy piece (edited 3.17.2010 -- Epidemic far outstrips the feculence of Elements and is among the worst movies I have ever seen).
Since the list is very short, I will cover the good. It is all yellow, or sepia to be more correct; this aspect adds to the grime of the setting and helps remind the viewer that what we see are memories constructed during hypnosis. The city and all in it are wet and it is permanently 3am according to Kim. The color and the grime create a small mental space for the viewer. These are things that cannot go without mention and a little praise.
Ultimately the film just doesn’t work. Buy a puzzle that is supposed to make whatever picture and it supposedly has 500 pieces. The Element of Crime removes 100 pieces and adds another 50 that don’t belong in the box. Then you are expected to find a way to make the puzzle whole. So it is part psychology part drama part thriller, but it is all nearly impossible to understand.
I’ve reviewed Mr. von Trier’s Medea. His retelling of this myth is very stylized; however, Medea works. The myth is generally understood so the viewer didn’t have to focus at all on the plot, leaving all of the attention to focus on the style the director used. With Elements there is an attempt at a plot, but it just never catches. Fisher (aptly named) does try to become Harry Gray (also aptly named) but his way is sloppy at best and incomplete. Since there is a plot, the viewer is required to try to follow it. If the plot fails, the viewer is invited either to stop the movie or slog on. If the viewer slogs on, the only way I can see of enjoying the film is if the viewer keeps swatting away the attempt at plot. The only effective way I can think of doing this is to mute it. If there is no sound, you can use whatever plot you like.
The thumbnail sketch I thought of while realizing that the movie always seemed to be 20 minutes from the end is this: Elements is like a sepia toned and extremely dark Fellini film without the charm. Many of Fellini films are esoteric and absurd (like Elements), but not in a way that is off putting. I was so put off that when I tried to do a bit of bowling on my Wii before bed, I just couldn’t seem to be able to control the ball.
Other Lars von Trier reviews:
Element of Crime
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