Epidemic (Lars von Trier / Denmark, 1987):

"A film should be a pebble in your shoe": Lars von Trier and Niels VÝrsel enjoy their own joke so much they can't keep a straight face. Director and writer play "themselves," bubonic creativity (falling between two stools) is their subject. When the script for The Cop and the Whore gets fried, the two scramble for a new project to meet the Danish Film Institute deadline; the writing of a thriller about a plague outbreak coincides with the spreading of a virus in the real world. The framing bits play out like the Lars & Niels Improv Hour crapped out in 16mm, the work-in-progress is imagined as heavily baroque -- Von Trier plays the misguided hero, whose idealism is seen as traitorism by fellow doctors in a passage staged apparently in the bowels of Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu estate. The pair visits Germany and the camera zooms into Udo Kier's tearful anecdote, one of the film's many instances of searching experimentation mingled with subterranean facetiousness; VÝrsel elsewhere wants to be able to write about America "like Kafka" and recites a teenage girl's correspondence for mutual chortling, the timeline of the narrative scrawled on the wall ("Here we need some drama... Revelation leads to some religious ending") would be used for Breaking the Waves, surely. Von Trier dissolves his Alka-Seltzer in a champagne glass, a laughing cabbie (Michael Simpson) is cast as a pestilent preacher and last seen chest-deep in a swamp surrounded by mock-zombies -- as meta-doodles go, this needs better gags. The stupidity of the setup is nearly forgiven when Von Trier's ferocious punchline rolls along: Bemused producer Claes Kastholm Hansen calls the results "pathetic at best," their dinner is followed by a hypnotist's prolonged freakout, film-school impudence boils over into authentically galling horror. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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