The Idiots

Dir: Lars von Trier, 1998. Starring: Bodil Jorgensen, Jens Albinus, Anne Louise Hassing, Troels Lyby, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Louise Mieritz. Foreign.
The Idiots

Dogme 95 is the only contemporary avant-garde film movement that comes to mind. Its founders included Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, and the requirements set forth in the manifesto are simplistic and humble. However, they're often cited by cineastes as pretentious and narcissistic. For some, myself included, they are refreshing classics in the world of unconventional cinema and some of the most telling works in regards to the filmmakers behind them and audiences drawn to them. My personal favorite for a very long time was Dogme #6, Julien Donkey-Boy, directed by Harmony Korine. Dogme #2, The Idiots, by the versatile Lars von Trier, not only surpassed my expectations – as it is the most revered film meeting the requirements – but shook me in a way that was both disarming and enlightening.

The film has two protagonists who could easily be taken as characters to represent the stance of audience and artist. It unfolds as a sort of mockumentary. We start with the “audience,” made tangible by the character of Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), a soft-spoken, lost and almost infantile woman who finds herself drawn to a group of people after a chance encounter. The group, though at first not unified on this revelation, gives the founding title to Stoffer (Jens Albinus), a charismatic, proud and egotistical participant in the act of “spazzing” or releasing one's inner idiot. Here we find our caricature of the “artist.”

The pastimes of the group include pretending to be mentally handicapped in public as well as privately, in a vacant estate of which Stoffer is an unwelcome proprietor. The group frequents restaurants, public pools and other various places under the veil of this handicap and usually with one of the members acting as a handler. They also harass and intimidate neighbors and residential areas, pushing the limits of conduct and seemingly attempting to expose the sentiments of society in regards to retardation.

At first Karen is bewildered by the group and somewhat disturbed by their ability and comfort in “poking fun” at people who are mentally handicapped. And while most of the group admits that their actions are a game, none hold the notion that it is in any way inappropriate or menacing. In fact many find participating to be refreshing and true, beholden to the idea that everyone has an “inner idiot” that wants to come out; everyone wants to lose control and be accepted for who they are regardless of what they project. Soon Karen becomes intoxicated by their happiness and allows herself to stay secluded with them, though many have high profile middle class lives outside of their game. Some even have families. Just when Karen begins to change in truly understanding the beauty in their paradise, the world comes in, as it were. Encounters with a variety of people from the “outside” begin to threaten their oasis, as these people force the group to reflect on the real meaning behind their actions and the validity of them –as well as the unsavory reality of being a part of any “society.” The moments in the film that portray the group on the verge of collapse are some of the most poignant and thought-provoking examples of the human condition. For what else can be behind corruption, conflict and desire if not our own egos?

Lars von Trier only made one film that could be defined as Dogme under the manifesto, and the group has more or less dispersed. Perhaps this was due to heavy criticism or backlash at the rules within the movement. His films over the past two decades have always been driven with elaborate and profound character studies, even those crafted under a large budget and with dazzling cinematography. That being stated, something about this film seems to be extremely personal. The draw to The Idiots and the Dogme 95 movement is its simplicity. Assuming one was or wanted to be a filmmaker, there are restrictions in regards to what you can portray and how you can portray it. Perhaps this is the motivation behind film movements throughout time; a way for artists to delve into areas of the craft that were previously unheard of in order to free themselves from those limitations. Like Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy, which also deals with the reality of being mentally handicapped in a different way, I find an underlying statement to the freedom and beauty of “simple” as well as the conflict involved in a societal context. Was Von Trier touched by this or compelled to explore it? I couldn't say, but it feels as such due to the argument that this is the feeling incited by being the viewer...by being involved. I'd also say that, as an artist, he must also face the reality of the ego in his own work and the motivations behind it. Is The Idiots a quest for understanding or an exercise in the attempts of originality? It doesn't matter. It's whatever you want to make of it and it remains relevant, hilarious and touching—and therefore it is wonderful. Highly recommended.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Nov 12, 2015 12:45pm
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