Directed Viewing: “Epidemic” Iterations

Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.

For the rest of us, we started last week with a fairly unenthusiastic start to Danish auteur Lars von Trier (check it out here) where I tried my best to find something worthwhile in the mess of post-film school obfuscation. I feel, thinking about it more, than the biggest problem with that movie was that it never set any sort of bar of normalcy. It’s okay to be weird, but you have to start somewhere recognizable and then get there, or else it all just seems too homogeneous to be interesting.

Not to put too fine a point on the coming article, but today’s movie sidesteps that problem rather handily, though perhaps too far in the other direction.

Epidemic (1987)

“The Policeman and the Whore” is a script written by aspiring screenwriters Lars (Lars von Trier) and Niels (Niels Vorsel), a script that they’re happy to deliver to the studio to make into a movie. The problem is, their only copy got lost, and their producer is now breathing down their neck for a script. Lars and Niels, hovering over the typewriter trying to remember what they wrote, realize that their obvious action-film script was so generic they can’t even remember it. The idea of rewriting it is too much for them. They’re artists, not machines! Instead, in the five days they have, they’ll write a new script! Something arty, something with meaning, something that will blow their last effort out of the water. Lars, on little more than a whim, types up the title: EPIDEMIC.

Epidemic, the film we’re talking about, is a strange mix of things. It’s half the story of Lars and Niels, playing themselves, writing this fictional script called EPIDEMIC (for purposes of telling them apart, that’s how we’ll keep saying it), which is the story of a Doctor Mesmer, a city doctor trying to combat a plague who decides to go out into the rural areas to help those his colleagues will not, not realizing that as he travels he carries the plague with him in his medical bag. That in and of itself isn’t particularly bizarre, it’s the kind of macabre plague story that hearkens back to the tales of sudden apocalyptic disease that struck down entire populations during the time of the Black Death.

In fact, there’s a sort of timelessness to the story of Dr. Mesmer that we see play out on screen. Mesmer (played by von Trier also) wanders through a bleak yet beautiful countryside like the errant knight in The Seventh Seal. His methods are 20th century medicine, but the world depicted is no different now than hundreds of years ago. And it’s all filmed with a steady, carefully remote hand; compared to the intimate, handheld, often casually lazy way that the scenes with Lars and Niels are shot, the two sections feel visually distinct even if they’re both grainy black and white.

Epidemic! How many times can I say Epidemic in this Epidemic caption? It’s an … epidemic.

A more important piece of visual flair is the title itself. When Lars types EPIDEMIC into his typewriter, it’s framed up on the screen and each letter becomes burned into the upper left corner in red text. This title overlay doesn’t disappear, but instead hangs around for the entire rest of the movie, branding the whole thing with the title of this movie-within-a-movie, mostly unobtrusively but always in a way it’s hard not to notice. Which, considering what happens, brings the entire experience of the movie into question.

You see, there’s a certain nebulousness to the reality of this movie that lies in the heart of almost all of von Trier’s work. The sequences of Lars and Niels seem really down to earth, with them travelling to research their script against a ticking clock, joking about their process, struggling to get their story out in bits and pieces. As a look at the creative process, it’s surprisingly down to earth compared to von Trier’s usual elaborate obfuscations, and he plays himself in this movie with an honesty backed up by reports of people who have worked with him: shy but funny; prone to mood swings and plagued with phobias; constantly trying to say two or three things in every scene of his movies, even if (especially if) those things contradict each other.

Coffin dioramas are one of my favorite film tropes.

But by the same token, as they travel to research their story, they begin to hear reports of an illness that’s starting to crop up in cities. The irony isn’t lost on them, but it mostly seems to pass them by without much thought. They continue to write their script, finally finishing enough of it to show to the producer in time to meet their deadline. He visits, trashing the script for not having the action or broad appeal of their last one. Being a typically flaky producer-type, he offers a quick solution to help fix it: he has a hypnotist come in and hypnotize someone to believe in the world of the script, helping fill in the parts that need bulking up. Yet when they put the woman under, she’s so horrified by the spreading epidemic that she seemingly goes crazy and kills herself, even as the producer and Niels begins to show signs of being infected and news reports talk about the spread of the disease.

Which leads to the ultimate puzzle of EPIDEMIC: in some ways it’s the story of how creative works can birth reality, a magical creator-as-God sort of concept that posits that reality is what people make of it, and Lars and Niels’ script was the conduit through which this fictional epidemic emerged into the real world. On the other hand, there’s nothing that says the Mesmer portions of the film aren’t real, a cosmic coincidence that Lars was writing a story that was playing out in reality at the same time, and in their travels Lars and Niels catch the disease that’s spreading at the very time they’re too busy writing about a fake one to notice. Then it becomes a lesson in ‘life being the strangest fiction of all,’ which is also very von Trier.

There’s a pretty incredible low-key elegance to a lot of the black and white in this movie.

And if we move a layer back, that omnipresent title is the biggest clue to a third interpretation. Maybe Lars and Niels, the minute they typed out the title, weren’t making a story about Dr. Mesmer and a mysterious epidemic, but were making a movie about Lars and Niels, fictional versions of themselves, making a story about Dr. Mesmer. That Lars von Trier and Niels Vorsel are playing barely fictionalized versions of themselves anyway is the biggest tip-off here, turning the story into a sort of endless progression of Lars and Niels (real life) making a movie about Lars and Niels (pre-EPIDEMIC title) making a movie about Lars and Niels (post-EPIDEMIC title) making a movie (starring Lars). It’s turtles all the way down.

The thing is, for all this confusion the movie mostly works, for exactly the reasons Element of Crime didn’t. No matter how far you want to bend the interpretation about how far this story goes, at the end of the day it’s ultimately grounded with Lars and Niels as screenwriters in the ‘normal’ world as a touchstone by which everything else can be judged. Sure, the film calls that into question, but it doesn’t so firmly pull the rug out from under you that there’s no context for what is or isn’t real. It’s a much more sly way of making a similar point about the unreality of worlds we see on film, and it’s even much more complex with far less stylism.

Lars von Trier drinking in a bathtub. I don’t even have to add anything to this.

The problems, then, are all in von Trier’s inexperience. The movie is (rather obviously) indulgent, and reliant upon the sort of heavy winking barely-subtext that denotes the kind of ‘art film’ mentality that people talk about to explain why they don’t like ‘art films.’ For all the interesting narrative complexity, the movie is a chore, with von Trier far too in love with letting his actors say everything over showing and letting people figure it out for themselves. Lars von Trier will never be a subtle filmmaker, but these early movies are sledgehammers, and they batter us with their ideas to the detriment of the films.

Which is a shame, because Epidemic is an idea that deserves a subtler hand. Then again, maybe someone with more command of their abilities wouldn’t go so far with the ridiculous premise, folding it in upon itself as many times as that. It’s a messy idea from a messy young filmmaker, and all those flaws that make it a troublesome movie to watch and pull apart are exactly the things that make it so interesting once their surmounted. It’s decidedly divisive, equal shares obtuse and genius, but that should be no surprise. That is going to be a clear recurring theme in this series.


About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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