“The Idiots” – Andrew Guarini

The most important word in Danish director Lars von Trier’s “Golden Heart Trilogy” would have to be heart, simply because all 3 of the films (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) and 1998’s The Idiots are about characters who selflessly, perhaps naively, go against the common definition of right to follow what their heart and faith tells them. To a much lesser extent, the middle film of the trilogy, The Idiots is more about this lifestyle or mentality in terms of an entire group, not just characters like Bess in Breaking the Waves or Selma in Dancer in the Dark. Rather, this film is set in motion by Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) who in an impulsive gesture runs along with a group of people, both young and old, who left lives behind in order to gather at a house in a suburb of Copenhagen and dedicate themselves to finding their “inner idiot.” Their methods for finding this inner idiot is to do what they call “spass” in public, or act mentally retarded in crowded areas, challenging establishment by creating chaos they can control and manipulate.


In atypical von Trier fashion these characters, whose leader is the eccentric Stoffer (Jens Albinus), often state their reasons for acting this way; they are “anti-bourgeois” and by performing this act, they are able to consciously view society’s attitudes towards the mentally retarded. It’s a rather depressing, yet provocative development that these characters open in their unorthodox way of living in public space: the general population does not treat their intelligence with anything but pity, disgust, discomfort or ignorance.


Throughout their almost experiment-like trials, even characters that appear as helpful are still hiding their dismissive attitude of the supposedly retarded characters ability to do even the simplest of tasks. One such scene would be when Stoffer leaves fellow spasser (whom he tells the people is his brother) Jeppe (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) to fend on his own at a bar table of bikers. When the bikers believe Jeppe has to go to the bathroom, they take him there only to realize he is just standing at the urinal. One of them remarks, “Of course. They can’t piss by themselves.” They begin to help him, but we can sense the distress and inconvenience on their faces as they help him almost immediately when they assume he is not able of completing the task himself.


In some ways it is a social test for the group but also a form of companionship and oddly enough, a very intense freedom for we often see the characters slip back and forth from retarded to “normal” in a split second. Their very ability or conscious decision to do this is in tune with the unpredictable genre conventions of the film, of which it gleefully bounces all over the place. At some points a drama (as Stoffer demands of the group’s dedication become even more frenzied), a comedy, or a documentary with the characters speaking about the groups rising and falling fortune to a probing interviewer.


Much of the film’s presentation is rooted in von Trier and fellow Danish director Thomas Vinterbeg’s Dogme 95 manifesto, a movement dedicated to more real, bare filmmaking. The cornerstones of this set of ideas is wholly present in The Idiots, which is marked with “Dogma 2″ in the title scene, certifying that this is a picture very rooted in the rules and guidelines of the movement. Whereas Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves show certain facets of Dogme they are not completely devoted to the idea of Dogme; The Idiots, with its always jittery frame, constant jump cutting, random zooming, unfinished conversations, natural lighting, lack of props and score combined with the bleached out digital quality of the film make the picture feel appropriately unfinished in the attempt to make it feel incredibly personal.


At some points, you can see von Trier (who shot, as he says 90% of the film himself) with his camera in the reflection of a window or a boom mic wandering into the frame as the shaky camera lets peoples figures go in and out as well. It’s a disorienting picture visually but it only complements the story which haphazardly runs itself between the group’s unity growing amidst their isolation and carefree performances amongst the real world and the inevitable consequences of their abandoning of their own lives in order to find their own idiot. What is the price for this sacrifice? Every scene we’re presented showing them as a group functioning happily through total social anarchy we feel the unspoken reality that their fun cannot last forever.


Karen is the interesting character and at first the outcast; she is fascinated by this new group, this break from the ordinary; we sense that there is something in her life that has driven her into staying. It takes her some time to start spassing but scenes such as her tearful confession that “We’re so happy here” and “I have no right to be this happy” show that in simply changing their appearance to others, they’ve gone on a totally liberating vacation without actually traveling very far from what they’re used to. But amidst the controversy for the film’s portrayal of the mentally handicapped is without a doubt another aspect of von Trier’s film that is much more universal, this idea of losing yourself amidst a group, or amidst radical change.


*Spoilers in the following paragraph, avoid reading if you have not seen the film*


The film’s most heartfelt moments come in these instances where the characters do in fact begin to lose themselves, mixing their true feelings with their manufactured spassing. The most prominent example, relayed not through contrived dialogue but powerful performances, is in the midst of the film’s most infamous moment (one that also signals the beginning of the end), a graphic group sex scene as the house residents fly completely in and out of their characters on Stoffer’s “birthday.” Two of the characters, Jeppe and Josephine (Louise Mieritz) have departed from the rest of the group and found their own room. At first they move slowly, mouths agape, making unintelligible noises. In other words they seem to be spassing. However, once they get closer and actually begin to kiss their movements are more deliberate and the look in Josephine’s eyes is that of genuine excitement, totally aware of the moment, one we sense she might have been wishing for. Smiling only for a moment before beginning to cry, she tells him that she loves him and they continue on, falling into each other’s embrace even more, but also holding back her hysterics even harder. Their love is restricted if they do it whilst in search of their inner idiot, but they must break character in order to experience what they both strive for. What is more important, their companionship or the allure of the happiness that the house grants them? Even Karen in the end shows the terror of this debate; her spassing is only met by being viciously smacked by her husband. We learn that as much as they want to be able to mix their own lives with this house, it truly is either one or the other, it cannot be both.


The script, written by von Trier in a stunning four days, is as spontaneous as the editing and shooting style of the film; characters that rapidly swing between complacency and insanity as competition arises to be the best spasser and for their actions to not just be careless fun, but a catalyst for social change. This must be why Stoffer creates the nearly impossible challenge of the characters going back to their normal lives and spassing in front of people that knew them before they adopted this lifestyle. It is a challenge for them to not treat the spassing as something they do in secret, but as a part of their everyday life. The people you love and trust, how will they react when you when, as they see it, you go totally off the rails in your behavior? It’s an intriguing, innovative idea that creates a sharp tension throughout the group that carries seamlessly into the films naked (literally and figuratively), crushing climax and ending.


The acting throughout feels naturalistic, which helps when we compare it to American depictions of mental retardation, such as Sean Penn in I Am Sam or Cuba Gooding Jr. in Radio. Their spassing feels tinged with improvisation, especially so when we consider that the two-hour film was cut down from over 130 hours of shot footage. All the actors find their ways to not turn the retardation into offensive caricature, but as a piece of moving the scene and the story along. The Idiots is not necessarily perfect, namely in the fact that certain relationships von Trier attempts to complicate between characters just don’t hold up as well (such as Axel’s (Knud Romer Jørgensen) trials and tribulations) when compared to the more compelling ones within the house. Apart from an occasionally languid pace and the sporadically lost focus of the picture, The Idiots is von Trier doing what he does best: a true auteur constructing challenging material filled with genuine emotion and imaginative filmmaking flair.


Rating: ★★★☆


-Andrew Guarini

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