The Idiots

The Idiots

****1/2

Reviewed by: Chris

There's something about madness that's intrinsically anti-establishment. On a personal level, we might talk about having 'a mental night out,' or perhaps say to a friend "You're as nuts as I am!" We occasionally like to give ourselves permission to be daft, to throw to the wind caution, logic, all our sensible, learned, adult, civilised responses.

The idea of the Idiot who finds a deeper truth has been explored in literature from Don Quixote to Dostoyevsky. Von Trier, however, attempts a purely cinematic, visual approach, producing a film that is at times, funny, unsettling, provocative, shocking, or a victim of its own regressive agenda.

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An unconnected phrase at the beginning has a character saying: "The tension mounts, hits the roof and falls to earth with a bang," which well describes the movie.

We find ourselves in a restaurant. A carer is trying to control a group of mentally disabled individuals to minimise upset to other diners. One quiet and sensitive young woman is extremely tolerant - or politically correct. She tries calming one of the distressed young men. But he won't let go of her, and the woman (Karen) eventually just gets in the car with his group. She discovers they aren't ill at all. They are young people who pretend to be mentally retarded in order to discover their 'inner idiot'. The group's leader believes that "there is something more than meaningfulness and purposefulness." Later in the film, Karen will say "Being an idiot with you is one of the best things I've ever done." She is the last to join this hedonistic commune.

The group practice 'spassing' - bringing out the inner idiot - in private, with each other, or in public places. They devise new challenges to test their commitment, each taking turns to act as 'minder' when they are out in public.

Karen doesn't find it very funny (neither do we) - there are, after all, people who really are ill. It is almost like watching a slightly more vicious episode of the The Office, where by turns we laugh or feel disgusted. But Karen is gradually initiated into their way of life. She is a troubled individual to start with. How many of the group are mentally ill and just play at being sane people who pretend to be ill? This is a realistic and very unsettling study - a far cry from the nice clear defining lines of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Director Lars von Trier made this, his own first (and only) 'Dogme 95' film, several years after originating the concept with his colleague Thomas Vinterberg. They drew up a manifesto to protest the decadent illusionism of contemporary cinema. Dogme 95 became part promotional tool and part an aesthetic stance that demands a strict back-to-basics approach to filmmaking.

There is a strong nod to earlier 'freedom' cinemas such as French New Wave. The shaky hand-held cameras and sudden jump-cuts add to a feeling of disorientation and only as the film progresses is there any indication of serious intent. Like French New Wave and Dogme 95, the film ultimately succumbs to the mainstream, but not before making its point.

Says von Trier: "In old-fashioned terms, you might say it is a more political film than I've made before. On the surface it is about our attitudes to the mentally handicapped and how much we appreciate them. At a deeper level it must appear to be in defence of abnormality."

Our sympathies constantly shift. Many stereotyped reactions to the (apparently) mentally ill make us feel sympathetic to the perpetrators. Yet we know they are getting vicarious pleasures like free meals under false pretences. They challenge attitudes while being (we naggingly suspect) insincere - or are they? It has, at times, a throwback to hippy, flower-power philosophy of bleating against the system and 'bourgeois crap' while happily mooching off it.

Yet it we do see results. When Karen first 'goes into spass', the group are thrilled and happy for her. We are closer to her than anyone. We see how it allows her to express harmful pent-up feelings - is there a sort of weird mystical psychotherapy here that can actually work?

The Idiots is like a controlled social experiment, both in its subject matter and its filmmaking technique. Says von Trier: "The moral is that you can practise the technique - the Dogme technique or the idiot technique - from now to kingdom come without anything coming out of it unless you have a profound, passionate desire and need to do so. Karen discovers that she needs the technique, and therefore it changes her life. Idiocy is like hypnosis or ejaculation: if you want it, you can't have it - and if you don't want it, you can."

A party (in 'spasser' mode) includes a sort of messed up gang-bang orgy and the easily offended should be warned that there are scenes of unsimulated sex. In the midst of it, we see tender lovemaking as two individuals find ways emotionally to express their vulnerability to each other. "In the weeks preceding shooting we worked a great deal on the spassing, and the cast became very fond of spassing. But gradually they simply got bored if they didn't have to spass. And as an outsider, as time goes by you become quite unaffected by spassing, whereas at first it was pretty distracting to have someone drooling down your trousers." Having dealt with that, things like nudity didn't present a problem: "One morning I greeted the cast naked in the front drive and insisted that today was to be a nude day. No, we didn't have any nudity problems."

While not for everyone, von Trier's devotion to intellectual inventiveness in his art is apparent. At the end of The Idiots we may feel it was so realistic that we struggle to remember it was only a work of fiction and didn't actually happen. Documentary-style interviews with members of the commune force us to continually evaluate what we are watching. Ultimately, like a modern Rebel Without a Cause, it expresses frustration with a complacent society (or industry) without offering a solution. The Idiots and Dogme 95 have led to a worldwide interest in Danish film as a whole, and inspired filmmakers all over the world. However offensive or intentionally clumsy, its influence cannot easily be denied.

Reviewed on: 20 Dec 2006
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A group of drop-outs have 'fun' pretending to be mentally ill.
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Read more The Idiots reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray **

Director: Lars von Trier

Writer: Lars von Trier

Starring: Bodil Jrgensen, Jens Albinus, Anne Louise Hassing, Troels Lyby, Nikolaj Lie Kaas

Year: 1998

Runtime: 117 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Denmark

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