Idiots, The

Poster
1998
Lars von Trier

8/10 (gets slow and a bit tedious)

This is Lars von Trier´s second entry in his Golden Heart Trilogy (1996’s “Breaking the Waves” and 2000’s “Dancer in the Dark” are the first and third), and it is the most shocking. Indeed it is one of the more shockingly unique movies you will ever see. I strongly recommend it just because I can virtually guarantee that you will never see anything like it anywhere else. It is also the second true film of the Dogme 95 pact, after Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration.”

The story is about a group of anti-bourgeois young twenty- and thirty-somethings that, under the direction of the dictatorial Stoffer (Jens Albinus), have created a way of intellectual, emotional and artistic expression under the guise of feigning physical and mental disability (i.e. becoming “idiots”). They go to different public venues — restaurants, malls, swimming pools — and “spaz out” in order to elicit reactions from the normal folk. Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), a mentally and emotionally simple woman who actually comes close to a real idiot (and the “golden heart” heroine hinted at by the name of the trilogy), infiltrates the group out of curiosity and an altruistic desire to help. Serving primarily as a caretaker at first (someone who looks after the other members of the collective while they are “spazzing”), she eventually gets in touch with her inner idiot and learns how to spaz herself. In the meantime, many dynamics of the group and society are explored, with results of varying interest.

The premise of the film is enough to draw a curious filmgoer, and the first hour or so of the picture is captivating for that reason alone. You’re trying to figure out what is behind this, why they’re acting that way, what they’re trying to prove. At the same time, the idea opens up a whole can of worms about freedom of expression, cultural opinions on its less desirable members, and social acceptability in general. The film’s chief value lays in these observations and ponderings. Eventually, however, the story gets bogged down in its group melodrama and seems to lose focus, losing some of its specialness at the same time.

The camera work and cinemagraphic style, following in the Dogme 95 tradition, help to give the film a raw, stark flavor that works perfectly with the subject matter. It’s not a comfortable subject, and von Trier doesn’t give you a comfortable visual perspective either. There are graphic sexual images (including unsimulated sex at a group orgy at one point), and the film was censored in most developed countries. The movie also aroused controversy for its insensitive portrayal of physical and mental handicaps. The argument strikes me as a little over-sensitive, just because at no point does it explicitly feel like Lars von Trier is condoning the behavior of Stoffer and his gang.

To sum up, this is not a completely satisfying film, but it gains points for sheer originality and inventiveness. It is further proof that Lars von Trier is one of the most brilliant directors alive. Genius (which he purportedly boasts of himself) is rarely accessible, or even comfortable, so you shouldn’t be expecting it from his films. But that doesn’t mean they don’t hold a significant value.

You may not feel too good after seeing this movie, but I think you will be happy you did regardless, just for having seen something completely unexpected. “Breaking the Waves” is better, but “The Idiots” is almost as important.

23 March 2010

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