Lars von Trier’s Element of Crime begins with an overweight and sweaty Egyptian doctor with a monkey on his shoulder persuading the ailing protagonist to relent to hypnosis. In order to get to the source of his dis-ease, the doctor insists, he must go back in time, back down the flooded labyrinthine corridors of memory to where the whole dark story hooked itself into his being.
Seduced by the possibility of an answer, a cure, the man goes back in time to when it all started – when, after 13 years in exile in dry, dusty Egypt, he was called back to Europe to investigate a case in which young children were being murdered and hideously mutilated. In the film Europe is not Europe as we know it, but a dark, watery underworld of ancient passages and leaking rooms, canals and scaffolding, dumpyards and water-soaked roads that lead through dark, interminable tunnels to more water and more darkness.
Water is also the element that entraps the protagonist in Chris Pretorius’s Dark Continent. The central figure is the explorer who wakes up to find himself drifting down a river in a bathtub. All about is water and he can’t swim. Here the liquid continent of darkness is not Europe, but Africa. The continent both men find themselves incapable of escaping is that of the mind flooded by the great sea of the subconscious. “I think the fear of drifting into darkness, chaos, irrational terror, regressing into a state of the unsubdued preconscious, is still very much with us today,” says Pretorius.
Both protagonists are held captive by some obscure Ã¼berplan – some map they do not have in their possession. Von Trier’s detective is the pawn of the sick and twisted chief of police who hides the information he needs. Even the old vodka-swilling academic who is supposed to be the detective’s friend seems to be hiding some crucial clue from him. Pretorius’s agonised explorer is held captive by his tight-arsed manservant who seems to know something more than he does about his presence in this inescapable wilderness.
There are archetypes and continual proverbial statements in both narratives, a sense of things being oddly familiar, the same as they ever were – and also somehow deeply irrevocable. In the midst of all the madness the explorer can still ring the bell and be attended to. Despite the unknown creatures that lurk in the bushes on the riverbank, milk is served with his coffee whether he likes it or not. And this sense of things being as things have always been has echoes in Von Trier’s hero’s laconic tone. Donkeys may be shot, drowned in the harbour and hung up by one leg, but nothing seems to be capable of surprising him.
The donkeys in Von Trier’s film are reflected by the strange, surreal animals that appear in the backdrops of Pretorius’s play. Both directors have a taste for sparse interiors, loads of flapping muslin and cream linen suits. In both narratives an elusive woman enters the plot to mess with the mind of the man – to titillate and confuse.
The parallels and similarities between the two tales are too many to list here, but most striking of all is the effect they have on an audience. Both productions bewilder and confuse. Both directors seem to have an intention to simultaneously shock and anaesthetise. On the one hand you are lulled into a dreamy stupor. On the other the relentlessness of the plot creates a restlessness that becomes almost intolerable – particularly in the case of Dark Continent. I wanted to get up and scream. About 25 people exited the auditorium before the play had come to its inevitable end. (This probably delighted the play’s sadistic creator.) I longed to be one of them, and yet was lulled into being there, subjected to the ramblings of a man descending into a grim and tedious kind of madness. It was like slow torture. But, to Pretorius’s credit, beautiful slow torture.
Element of Crime will be screened again on July 9