It may prove confounding to anyone expecting a more conventional narrative, but The Element of Crime--the debut feature of Danish visionary Lars von Trier--marks the arrival of an audaciously original talent; the film is deeply personal in its inspirations yet richly informed by a pure love of cinema. Approaching a hard-boiled detective plot from a hypnotically subconscious perspective (thus establishing the tone he would echo in his later films Epidemic and Europa), von Trier presents a murder case solved from the inside out. Which is to say, the plot unfolds as recollected under hypnosis by Fisher (Michael Elphick), the grizzled cop who investigates the case. This framework is arguably beside the point; it's merely von Trier's way of entering a post-apocalyptic world of his own making, flooded and decaying, and filmed entirely in an amber-tinted tone punctuated only by blue police lights and sickly green fluorescents. By following principles of crime solving conceived by his mentor (played by British film veteran Esmond Knight), Fisher closes in on an awful revelation that spins The Element of Crime into another psychological dimension. Multilayered, deliberately paced, and atmospheric in the extreme (which less appreciative viewers may find intolerable), The Element of Crime elicits a dream state that is simultaneously oppressive and visually unforgettable, crammed with symbolic subtleties and cinematic references that can only be fully absorbed over multiple viewings. To say the least, this is a film that grows on you. --Jeff Shannon
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