The Idiots, 1998

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 examples of unconventional cinema. They also reveal a lot about the filmmakers, and the 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, was directed by Lars von Trier. It not only surpassed my expectations – as it is the most revered film in the movement – but shook me in a way that was both disarming and enlightening.

The film has two protagonists that could easily represent the construct of  audience and artist. It unfolds as a sort of mockumentary, complete with character interviews and shaky camerawork. We first see the “audience,” made tangible by the character of Karen (Bodil Jorgensen). Karen is a soft-spoken, lost, and almost infantile woman who finds herself drawn to a community of people after a chance encounter. 

The group gives the founding title to Stoffer (Jens Albinus), though they are not unified in the decision. Stoffer is a charismatic, proud, and egotistical participant in the act of “spazzing.” He and his peers covet the mentally handicapped as a way to release their inner idiot. Through Stoffer, we find the caricature of the artist.

The pastimes of the group include pretending to be mentally handicapped in public and privately. They cohabitate in a vacant estate, of which Stoffer is an unwelcome proprietor. They frequent restaurants, public pools, and other various places under the veil of this handicap. Sometimes one among them acts as a handler. 

They harass and intimidate neighbors in residential areas and push the limits of conduct. The objective is to expose the sentiments of society in regards to retardation. Or at least that’s what they tell themselves after provocation. 

At first Karen is bewildered by the group; she thinks they’re  poking fun at the mentally handicapped. 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 refreshing and a reflection of their true selves. They are 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 their abilities.

Soon Karen becomes intoxicated by their happiness and joins them in seclusion. Many have high profile middle class lives and/or families outside of their game. Their unconventional community gives them a separate space to exist without prejudice.

Just as Karen begins to change and truly understand the beauty in their paradise, their Babylonian world starts to unravel. Charged encounters with several people from the “outside” threaten everything they’ve accomplished. This forces the group to reflect on the validity and meaning behind their actions. In short, they’re met with the unsavory realities 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. After all, 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. The group dispersed, and all of the filmmakers went on to have successful careers.

Trier’s films over the past two decades have always been driven with elaborate and profound character studies. Most were made with a large budget and dazzling cinematography. 

Something about The Idiots seems to be very personal, though. The appeal of The Idiots and the Dogme 95 movement is simplicity. Assuming one was or wanted to be a filmmaker, there are usually restrictions in how and what you can portray.

This could be the motivation behind all film movements. They’re a way for artists to delve into areas of the craft that are often denied them. In doing so, they can artistically free themselves from those creative limitations. 

Likewise, Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy  deals with mental handicaps and taboos in a different way. With both, I see an underlying statement of freedom, societal conflict, and the beauty of “simple.” I wonder why Trier was touched by this and compelled to explore 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, really. It remains relevant, hilarious and, deftly touching. It’s one of my favorite films, and I recommend it even if you’re not a fan of Lars von Trier. 

 

Originally published for Amoeba Music’s “Movies We Like” blog, Nov. 12th, 2015

Director

Lars von Trier

 

 

 

“Being an idiot with you is one of the best things I’ve ever done.”