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In 1984, closing in on his thirtieth year, but not yet established as a wunderkind, Lars von Trier graduated from student films and experimental shorts to features with one of the more auspicious — not to mention audacious — debuts in film history.

Ostensibly unfolding as a kind of hypnotism-induced flashback during an interrogation, or maybe a therapy session, or (could be) something else altogether, THE ELEMENT OF CRIME follows a detective named Fisher back to Europe — from which he’s been in exile in Egypt for thirteen years — where he recounts (by reliving) his last case: an obsessive hunt for Harry Grey, a serial killer who specializes in the mutilation of young girls. Fisher adopts for his search the methodology of his criminologist mentor, now either hopelessly cracked or working for the enemy, which requires him to recreate the sequence of Grey’s actions, and thereby immerse himself in “the element of crime,” the mind of the criminal.

Additional plot points are not in short supply, but their synopsis is incidental to why you’ll want to see this thing. The film is a tour-de-force of oneiric art-design, a nightmare that hits the ground writhing and then ramifies in a thousand directions, none of them salubrious. While his style is already his own, von Trier’s first effort can be compared, in its ultra-saturated surfeit of pop-surreal imagery, to roughly contemporaneous works by Peter Greenaway, Neil Jordan, or even the Quay brothers, but cut with a Tarkovskian solemnity.

THE ELEMENT OF CRIME announced the arrival of a new master of provocative derangements. While his work has proved notoriously uneven over the years, von Trier’s first ranks with his best and shouldn’t be missed.

2/5 – 5:45pm

104 min

Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Alfond Auditorium
$9 Members, Seniors, and Students // $11 Non-members

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