Epidemic Movie Review
Cast & Crew
Director : Lars von Trier
Producer : Jacob Eriksen
Screenwriter : Lars von Trier, Niels Vørsel,
You know from the start that all will not turn out well; among the first scenes is a tour of the filmmakers' apartment in which the furniture is upended and the walls are smeared with blood. 1988's Epidemic chronicles the fateful few days in which the apartment's inhabitants simultaneously complete their film treatment and succumb to this plague.
All of von Trier's films have the act of filmmaking as their subtext to some extent - some would argue that all good films do - but Epidemic was only his second feature and here, obviously, the subtext is right up there on the screen. The film was photographed largely in 16mm in a grainy black and white, and much of the footage was shot from an unmanned camera, lending the proceedings an improvisational, Warhol feel. While the plot is that of the horror genre, the bulk of Epidemic deals with the creation of the film, an incubation that parallels that of the microbes that bear fruit in the title illness. (In the film von Trier and Vørsel are writing, the young doctor who travels out to treat the disease proves to be the carrier himself, a detail that strengthens von Trier's apparent assertion that idealism and creativity are linked to sickness. The deeper meaning of this assertion - maybe that the epidemic is somehow purgative, or that all life, even that of the disease, is a creative force - remains unclear to this viewer.)
Epidemic is often a lot of fun to watch, especially the footage of the film-within-the film; this has the same strangely dateless feel of his The Element of Crime and Zentropa, and like those films it takes place in a weirdly international and original landscape, like something from William Burroughs, complete with an intricate, implied history all its own. And von Trier has tricked his material out in allusion. His Dr. Mesmer, for instance, is a tip of the hat to Anton Mesmer, the 19th-century German physician who first dabbled in hypnotism (or "mesmerism"); Epidemic accordingly ends in a hypnosis session in which a woman, invited to immerse herself in the world of the film von Trier and Vørsel have written, goes berserk with fear and first draws attention to the actual symptoms of plague that those assembled have developed.
But too much of Epidemic feels thrown together, as though von Trier is working at the mercy of available material, weaving it into a whole as he goes. When he and Vørsel pay a visit to actor Udo Kier in Germany, Kier relates a horrifying tale his dying mother shared with him about German victims of Allied bombings. Later, when Epidemic refers back to this atrocity, it feels less like a planned revelation than an available one. For all the material that connects, there's as much, such as an autopsy, that feels like padding.
While von Trier is seldom less than interesting, and even his padding stands up fairly well beside the best work of many of his peers, Epidemic ultimately feels as extemporaneous as its camerawork; it wouldn't surprise me to find that it was made with the same haste as the film being made within it. It would certainly register as a disappointment for those seeking straight ahead gore. Best to see it as an insight into the working mind of a man who is, for better or worse, one of contemporary cinema's true visionaries. In that sense, it's an interesting, occasionally even fascinating, ride.
Epidemic is now available on DVD, with a few enlightening extras, from Home Vision Entertainment.
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