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The Element of Crime is Lars von Trier's 1984 debut film, a Genre Busting movie, a Science Fiction film as well as a Psychological Thriller with plot and characters typical of Film Noir, but the general atmosphere of a Cyberpunk with a Chance of Rain story, located in immediately post-World War III Europe, with surrealist undertones, and the whole thing filmed in a fashion homaging expressionist movies. The result is one of the gloomiest movies every directed which makes even Blade Runner look bright and optimistic.
It tells the story of detective Fisher, expatriate in Cairo, who undergoes therapeutic hypnosis in order to recall the events of his last case, which left him quite traumatised. The rest of the movie thus consists entirely of a flashback of said events: the search for an elusive child killer, using a controversial profiling method created by his former mentor and described in a book, the titular Element of Crime.
First film of the Europa trilogy.
The Element of Crime provides example of:
- Alone with the Psycho: subverted and possibly deconstructed, see Nice Job Breaking It, Hero, below.
- Anti-Hero: Fisher starts as one, but by the end of the film, he became a Fallen Hero.
- Bad Cop, Incompetent Cop: the police forces are so violent, expeditive, corrupted or unconcerned that they really act the part of The Mafia.
- Black and Gray Morality
- Chekhov's Gun: one of the sculpted statuettes left by the killer triggers the Nice Job Breaking It, Hero moment, much later into the movie.
- City Noir
- Crapsack World: post-World War III Europe is nothing but a crumbling pile of ruins where eveybody has gone dirt poor, deeply corrupt, completly mad, or a combination of those.
- Cyberpunk-Diesel Punk-Punk Punk: difficult to place exactly, but definitively Something Punk; the atmosphere certainly gives a Cyberpunk with a Chance of Rain Blade Runner-esque feeling, but the time period is post World War III, in an un-named European country in ruins, though weird contraptions and anachronical apparatuses do show up here and there.
- Cyberpunk with a Chance of Rain: this movie outdarks and outrains Blade Runner.
- Darkened Building Shootout: invoked but averted with a veangeance.
- Deliberately Monochrome: see Real Is Brown bellow.
- Dutch Angle: purposedly abused to absurd lengths to cause the viewer to lose sense of directions and gravity.
- Failure Is the Only Option
- Femme Fatale: Kim is a deconstruction.
- Film Noir: simultaneously Homage and Deconstruction.
- Gainax Ending
- Genre Deconstruction: only Lars von Trier could deconstruct a genre as cynical and dark as Film Noir, and still have the result be a Homage rather than a Parody.
- German Expressionism: a Homage to the genre.
- He Who Fights Monsters: a rather unfortunate consequence of a profiling method where one needs to think like the criminal; Fisher ends up killing a child, and it is strongly implied that Osborne killed one too.
- Hidden Villain
- Humans Are Bastards
- Infant Immortality: averted. Hard.
- Instant Index, Just Add Water: "There's water everywhere". Indeed.
- Mind Screw: a case of Zig-Zagging Trope; individual sequences and dialogues are sometimes difficult to make sense of, but put together they form a rather consistent and straightforward story (the audience is even given enough clues to predict some of the twists)… until you get hit by the ending.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: at what seems to be climax of the movie and the setup for a Darkened Building Shootout, Fisher is acting as the bodyguard of a young girl who is supposed to be meeting with someone suspected to be the killer. Footsteps are heard outside the room. Then one of the killer's statuettes falls from Fisher's pocket. The girl, believing him to be the killer, tries to flee, and in the ensuing panic and attempt to subdue her, he strangles her to death.
- Nightmare Fuel: the entire movie looks like and probably is an insane nightmare.
- Private Eye Monologue: subverted, as the monologue is actually a dialogue between Fisher and his therapist, since the whole movie is a hypnosis-induced flashback.
- Psychological Thriller
- Real Is Brown: possibly justified as the whole movie is a hypnotic flashback; interesting in that it was not done with Camera Tricks, but by lighting the sets almost only with low pressure sodium vapor lamps.
- Riddle for the Ages: the identity of the original killer is not revealed.
- Scenery Gorn
- Sci Fi Ghetto: Averted, the Criterion Collection dvd outs it as a work of Science Fiction.
- Serial Killer: most of the associated tropes are however averted, subverted or deconstructed.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Osborne, Fisher's former mentor.
- Shout-Out: various shots homaging movies by Andrei Tarkovsky.
- Silence Is Golden: in the maner of early sound expressionist films, the soundtrack alternates between this and discreet Psycho Strings.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: way, way, way on the cynical end.
- Super Window Jump: used twice, but subverted, as the effect produced is more akin to Dramatic Shattering and Slow Motion Fall.
- Through the Eyes of Madness
- What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic: invoked and probably deconstructed.
- Wretched Hive