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Diversion Episode Three: Two Films About Floods

The aftermath of flooding on film.

Welcome to our three-part series on DIVERSION, where we examine the idea of ‘flow’ and how it shifts from one place to the other. Not just on the mat, but in our lives, our minds and in our cultures. 

For Episode 3, we’re looking at two films about dams, floods and flow. The first is The Element of Crime (1984), the second is Lost River (2015).

The Element of Crime

1984

Dir: Lars Von Trier

Under hypnosis, a policeman named Fisher recounts the trip he took home to "Europe", after being away for 15 years. He's there to investigate a series of murders. Little girls who sell lotto tickets are turning up mutilated. 

But there’s been a flood. 

Everywhere in "Europe" (no country is ever named, just the continent) is half-drowned, and nearly every shot shows water or water damage. The suggestion is that the flood is not recent, but not ancient either. Fisher’s mentor Osborne, the author of the controversial criminology manual that gives the film its name, is his first stop in the waterlogged city. But Osborne has gone gently mad, living in fear and saturating himself with alcohol. 

Fisher sets out to investigate, following his mentor's methods like a textbook in pursuit of the murder suspect, a man named "Harry Grey", tracking his killing spree through the rubble of a drowned society. There are remnants of order on his path - waterlogged hotels that still use keys, a police station (the only place where our eyes get a blue light break from the orange sodium lighting of the film) with a force of men at least marginally interested in keeping a kind of order. But they’ve lost control over the small remnants of a society that are left to protect, not unlike the first Mad Max film. 

But there’s been a flood. 

The film plays out like a typical noir detective mystery (voice over, perpetual night, clues, calling cards, a ‘femme fatale’) but every location where information is delivered is either dripping, moldy, or completely submerged. Fisher's past in Cairo is hinted at, but never explained. Something about leaving his wife because they were being "sanded over", suggesting some kind of inertia or stagnation. 

But there’s been a flood. 

The diversion that shifted flow and drowned "Europe" was not a hydroelectric project or a burst dam, but looks to be something closer to biblical. A cleansing that left only mold and mud and the barest chalk outline of humanity behind. Or maybe water here is the element of crime. Not a periodic table element, but a classical one - earth wind, fire, water, now somehow an element required for crime to occur. After all, wherever there's water in this film, there's crime. But I'm not smart enough to decode a film, nor am I particularly interested. This is a film for diving, not solving. Watch for the flood, not for a capital “T” Thriller. There are plenty of those, but few are as visually interesting or purposefully strange as The Element of Crime. 

Four drowned cities out of a possible five.

LOST RIVER

2015

Dir. Ryan Gosling

Describing Lost River is an exercise in finding the "coolest" possible way to visualize a fairy tale. 

"Fairy tale" is the genre here because those are the words chosen to describe the film, at least according to the Amazon Prime description. And it helps to see this film not as taking place in our reality, but in a storybook one, in a sphere outside of time and space.

If you were to look at it without the protection of “fantasy”, it would look like director Ryan Gosling is doing a cosplay version of the work he did with Nicolas Windig Refn on Drive and Only God Forgives. Every frame seems designed to be “cool” in that neon-soaked way that Windig Refn films lean into.

"Cool" as in Content - Instagram filters, Tumblr posts, ruin porn, clickbait. Shot in decaying Detroit, Gosling's writing and directing debut works like a non-stop photo shoot, posing amazing talent like Soairse Ronan, Ben Mendelsohn, Christina Hendricks and Eva Mendes against neon lighting, flaming derelict buildings and creeping greenery reclaiming its ground. The locations are the "stars", the actors are the props, and character motivations are almost an afterthought.

The narrative takes place in a fictional, desolate town called Lost River with a population that is dwindling by the second, due to some unnamed economic depression that is forcing residents to pack up and escape. Through the fairy tale lens, it would seem as if the town was cursed, not just in the form of an economic downturn, but also by a flood that drowned part of the city when the river was dammed. The town of Lost River is a beautiful corpse, full of abandoned theaters, fluorescent-lit convenience stores, sub-prime mortgages, a shortage of copper wire, and an outsized Villain named Bully who rides through the rubble in a throne atop a convertible. He also cuts people's lips off and threatens Bones, who he caught stealing “his” copper wire. Bones, his family, his neighbor Rat and Rat’s catatonic Mother seem to be among the town’s final residents, with Bones and Rat convinced that the only way to lift the town’s curse is to remove something from the town at the bottom of the reservoir. 

The flood here could stand for something, could be some allegory. The flood of capitalism shifting directions and leaving ruin in its wake, maybe. But the film doesn't seem interested in exploring anything beyond surface level images. It seems only interested in making the director of photography (Benoit Debie of Spring Breakers and Into The Void, two similarly Instagram Content-heavy films) sweat and strain to make every shot as dramatically lit and visually "appealing" as possible.

So the whole experience ends up a great screensaver, a fine fairy tale, and a barely tolerable narrative film.

Two drowned cities out of a possible five.