Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
I’ve been working through the movies of Danish director Lars von Trier for the past few weeks, a project that I took up knowing mostly his current reputation as a divisive figure, the maker of movies that some people accuse of being simple exercises in provocation. What’s been interesting is that while his works (particularly the early ones) engender a discussion of how much they say anything other than say it stylishly, none of the movies have been particularly ‘shocking’. I know I’m a jaded viewer, but I’d like to think I’m not completely numb to those things.
Well, that changes today.
But first I think we need a history lesson. Two weeks ago I talked about the Dogme 95 movement, but didn’t really explain it. Unfortunately, we’re at the point where that’s no longer an option, as the movie we’re watching today is the only Dogme film von Trier has made to date (likely the only one he will make, I’d guess). So to approach the film one must understand some of the ideas and restrictions wrapped around it.
Created by Lars von Trier and fellow Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, Dogme 95 was a filmmaking movement the two men thought up as a rejection of ‘traditional’ movie-making, which they both claimed was far too artificial and philosophically impure to create moving, worthwhile art. So they wrote out a manifesto of ‘vows of chastity’, limits on what Dogme films could include in order to qualify. This was to return cinema to its immediate roots, inexpensive and immediate. The rules can be found on the wikipedia page, if that interests you, but mostly they were straightforward: no sets, no props, no special effects, no score (outside of what’s naturally in the world), no tripods or crane shots or Steadicam. In fact, no action or genre works, nor period or fantasy, were allowed. Dogme movies take place here and now, and are different from cinéma vérité primarily in that they use real actors who follow these rules as well.
The Dogme 95 movement took off in certain arthouse circles primarily because it cut out a lot of the expense of making a movie. Sure, one of the rules was that you still shoot on film, but the productions were by and large otherwise very accessible, low budget affairs just because there wasn’t anything to spend money on. When you don’t have all the trappings of a production, you don’t have a big crew either, and so the whole thing immediately becomes much cheaper. That said, Dogme was not without its criticisms. It is such a stringent set of rules that the movies in question are all kind of ugly affairs, in particular the rule that states that there can be no camera mountings lead to a lot of handheld 35 mm shooting, which in the mid-90s was a far more horrifying prospect to people than it is today, when rampant handheld has infested every level of movie making.
And there’s a question of just how seriously Lars von Trier took the very idea. In some ways it was a publicity stunt, as von Trier used an opportunity to speak on the future of film at a French film festival to paper the audience with Dogme 95 manifesto pamphlets, only to later admit that he wrote the rules down on a whim one day, while drunk, in a scant 45 minutes. Which is just another wrinkle in the frustrating duology of von Trier. The idea to create a genre of cinema that’s not beholden to the massive budgets and excess of 95% of film is a noble one, but von Trier can’t do anything genuine without adding a level of showmanship that makes you half convinced he’s doing it just to get a rise out of people.
As it is, Dogme 95 has produced a few dozen movies from various directors, mostly foreign language films, but it never really took off as an actual revolution of cinema. Partially due to just how restrictive it is, but also probably due to the influx of people in the past decade who have had great success with no-budget cinema in a post-digital camera world. And even the films that did supposedly adhere to the principles regularly violated one or more of the rules, as shooting a film with no artifice other than narrative is apparently next to impossible if you want to have a real product on the other end. But it is a key part of von Trier’s evolution and influence, part of the reason he’s such a controversial figure particularly among long-time critics, and explains some of why today’s film is the way it is.
The Idiots (1998)
So let me just lay down the plot of The Idiots for you, free of value judgements, so you know what we’re getting into: The Idiots is the story of a woman named Karen (Bodil Jorgensen) who encounters a group of adults who have an unconventional sort of performance art. They go into public spaces, or the house where they’re all squatting, and unleash their ‘inner idiot,’ which often involves acting developmentally disabled, in order to seek a sort of societal and emotional freedom that they feel their bourgeois setting is built to repress. They do this by spassing, which involves things such as group trips to restaurants or public pools, where one of them acts as the ‘normal’ supervisor of the group while the rest act out, and then they all gather back home to talk about their experiences.
So I’ve lost most of you already, I’m sure. This movie was controversial upon release and it still feels absolutely shocking on a fundamental level that it exists even today. Part of it is cultural norms, but as someone raised to even question the use of the word ‘retarded’ as a pejorative, the idea of adults emulating the behaviors of actually disabled people hits all my ‘offensive’ buttons. But that’s no surprise, because this is Lars von Trier, and in all things he seeks to provoke and scandalize as much as he does make genuine statements. So while plenty has been written on the moral questions of making this your subject for a film, I don’t think that discussion is terribly interesting. This probably should offend you, but if you’re interested in seeking stuff beyond it, we’ll talk about those things. If you’d rather just consider the whole premise too much? Can’t say I blame you. Adiós, vaya con dios, and see you around, as next week’s movie is much more conventional.
What’s most interesting is that behind all of that initial shock and scandal is one of the more human of von Trier’s films. It plays out as almost a documentary of this fictional dadaist performance art troupe, as they act out as both a way to entertain themselves and as a profound sort of therapy that they seem nearly guilty admitting. The movie, shot in a smeary hand-held that looks unlike the entirety of von Trier’s other filmography, seems almost like a found footage movie at times (the genre didn’t exist yet, of course, and nobody acts like the camera is there), especially since it’s inter-cut with interviews with the characters involved at some point past the scope of the movie, where they somberly try to provide justifications and reflect back on that time. But each moment is surprisingly revealing, even when everyone struggles against each other and personalities clash, and that’s before they even begin to spass.
It’s those sequences that really define the emotional moments of the film, and do so with a sympathy that leads one to even go so far as to understand why these people are doing the things they do. There’s one sequence where one of the members, spassing, is left by the normal-presenting leader of the group, Stoffer (Jens Albinus), in the care of some violent biker guys, a test of sorts to see if he can keep up the facade under threat of potential violence if these guys feel they’re being put on. But people’s reactions to the disabled are often heartbreakingly humane, as these rough and tumble guys instantly go into caretaker mode, even going so far as to bring him into the bathroom when they decide he needs to go, one of the men holding the spasser’s penis for him. It is at the same time one of the most uncomfortably exploitative and infinitely sweet moments I’ve seen on film in some time, and it’s that juxtaposition that really drives home most of the poignant images of The Idiots.
Stoffer is the group standout, as he’s the only who organizes most of the group efforts but is also the one who seems most interested in the political uses. To him, the group is a statement against society, a way to act out against a culture that has become safe and coddled. If that’s true, then what truer role could a human try to become than an idiot? He’s also the one who seems the most angry, lashing out sometimes violently when he confronts people in the real world who don’t immediately fold under the societal pressure to accommodate the disabled. Contrasted with Karen, who spends most of the time being the audience surrogate, tacitly disapproving of this way of life while still staying around, fascinated by it. By the time she feels comfortable letting go the first time, it becomes a transformitive act of beauty, this rather proper, closed off woman accessing this deep emotional well that move others in the group to tears.
It seems strange to call a movie with such a ridiculous premise nuanced, but I’m going to walk out on that limb. There’s a lot about human nature, about the lies we tell ourselves and the roles we assume to hide away our pain, that The Idiots says in a way few movies ever try to communicate. It does it in incendiary ways, but I feel that’s as much to jar people into recognizing themselves in this madness than it is to just shock and offend. Provocation is a tool with actual results, something that often gets forgotten in a world where trolls shock people for no other reason than the lulz. If von Trier is doing it for lulz, it’s only after the pain and suffering clearly on display, deeply felt by a director who makes each film seem like a cry of anguish he can’t express any other way. And for all the weird artifice of the spassers, there’s real discussion there about how people treat the disabled, and what it means to act out in society on various levels and with increasing degrees of consequence.
Of all the movies I’ve ever written about, this is absolutely the hardest to condone, much less recommend. But there’s material of worth here, buried under the obvious objections, that make it all worthwhile. This is undoubtedly as divisive a film as von Trier has made to date, and with good reason, but I’ve already followed this rabbit hole this far and it not only doesn’t feel out of place, but feels more humane and compassionate that most of von Trier’s work. There’s heart buried here, so long as you’re willing to find it.