Denmark’s Lars Von Trier has
made some wonderful films in the horror genre (THE
ANTICHRIST), but EPIDEMIC, his first such effort, is not
among them. A pretentious and sophomoric interplay of reality and
cinema, it’s at best a warm-up for Von Trier’s later work.
EPIDEMIC (1987) was the second feature by Lars von
Trier, following THE ELEMENT OF CRIME, which made a sizeable impression
back in 1984. EPIDEMIC was not as impressive, making far less of an
impact (it wasn’t even released on DVD in the U.S. until 2004). It
represents von Trier at an early stage in his development as a
filmmaker, and so is of interest primarily for fans of the director
wanting to see his obsessions at their starting point.
Two screenwriters, Lars Von Trier and Niels Vorsel, are
working on a treatment for a film about a cop and a whore. Before long
they (understandably) tire of this concept, and start afresh--on a new
script called EPIDEMIC, about a horrific plague ravaging Europe.
In between intensive bouts of research by Lars and
Niels into the Bubonic Plague and a lot of miscellaneous bullshitting
(complete with a flashback illustrating Niels’ dull reminiscence of an
old girlfriend), we see portions of the film they’re writing. It
involves a doctor named Mezmer (played by Lars) traversing a
plague-ravaged landscape together with a black colleague. Before long
the latter becomes afflicted and dies, leaving Mezmer to go it alone.
In the here-and-now, meanwhile, it seems the imaginary
disease concocted by Lars and Niels has somehow gotten loose in the real
world. Niels himself is hospitalized briefly after some suspicious
nodules appear on his neck.
Things spiral out of control completely during a dinner
Lars and Niels have with a potential financier. The latter is
unimpressed with their concept, mainly because it doesn’t contain enough
sex and violence for his tastes. That’s about to change, though: a young
woman is brought in to “watch” the unmade film under hypnosis…and all
Hell literally breaks loose!
This is a film that sounds far more interesting than it
actually plays. The interplay between reality and cinematic artifice is
represented by grainy black-and-white film stock for the screenwriting
sequences contrasted with more stately, burnished imagery for the
film-within-a-film. The latter portion, alas, is profoundly
uninteresting, with a tendency to linger on banal images for
interminable stretches and pretentious soliloquies that do nothing to
advance the narrative, much less hold one’s interest. As for the former
portion, it’s no better, filled with rambling improvised chatter and
jerky handheld camerawork; von Trier was evidently experimenting with
the homemade aesthetic that would come to characterize his Dogme 95
movement (see von Trier’s THE IDIOTS and Thomas Winterberg’s THE
CELEBRATION), but was just as evidently uncomfortable with the form.
We’re supposed to wonder if the scenes of von Trier and
Vorsel scripting their film are representative of the writing of
EPIDEMIC, but the whole thing is such a pretentious mess it’s difficult
to care. Why is the action interrupted by a flashback illustrating
Vorsel’s recollection of an old girlfriend that has nothing to do with
the rest of the film? Why is it that the title is burned into the upper
left of the screen for nearly the entire running time? (Was von Trier
afraid we’d forget it?) And why is the ending, which closes things out
on a welcome note of gory mayhem (something the rest of the film could
have used), so perversely inconclusive?
Lars von Trier was in his twenties when he made
EPIDEMIC. He went on to make some terrific films, but at this point in
his career he had yet to get his pretensions under control.
Director: Lars von Trier
Screenplay: Lars von Trier, Niels Vorsel
Cinematography: Henning Bendtsen
Editing: Lars von Trier, Thomas Krag
Cast: Lars von Trier, Niels Vorsel, Udo Kier, Svend Ali Hansen, Claes
Kastholm Hansen, Gitte Lind, Ib Hansen, Caecilia Holbeck