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The Idiots

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 12 May 2000

 Written and Directed by Lars von Trier.

Starring Jens Albinus, 
Louise Hassing, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, 
Louise Mieritz and  Bodil Jorgensen.

Lars von Trier's 1998 film The Idiots, which kicked-off the Dogme 95 back-to-basics school of filmmaking, is finally being released in the U.S., only with "black boxes" used to shield the audience's eyes from some of the  naughty bits in the film. Actually, this was an elected-upon, rather than imposed, solution by the filmmakers so that the picture could be released with an "R" rating without having to cut any footage.  I've seen the film without optical blinkers, and can report that, aside from one or two scenes, there's nothing here that you probably haven't already scene in either an anatomy class or in the locker room of your local gym. The rest of the picture, though, is another matter.

A disturbance in a polite restaurant introduces us to the movie's characters, a group of people who live communally in a vacant house in a suburb of a Danish city, and who feign the "uninhibited" mannerisms and behavior of the developmentally handicapped. There is talk about "getting in touch with your inner idiot," and of achieving a state of "spazz" which is supposed to be akin to an individual therapy breakthrough. But the group uses its hijinks in ways that are also inglorious. Its members shame people into buying shoddy, handmade Christmas decorations at outrageous prices. They also extort money from a man whose driveway pavement, they claim, caused one of their friends to stumble and fall. The local town council tries to bribe them into moving someplace else. Instead, one of the group members urinates on the council member's car, while another (Jens Albinus) calls the man a "Fascist" and then goes into a complete fit of hysteria during which he has to be forcibly restrained.

Criticizing the movie on these points is useless: the movie wants you to do that. The commune members complain about the contemptible way in which people respond to the handicapped people they pretend to be, but before we can complain about how contemptible the characters who are doing the complaining may be, von Trier has a group of real handicapped people drop by for a visit, and records the very different reactions the perfectly normal characters exhibit towards them. 

Photographed by von Trier in digital video, with primarily existing light, and then transferred to film (the only musical accompaniment is a lonesome rendition on the accordion of part of Saint-SaŽns' The Swan -- is this irony, or what?), The Idiots is definitely an either-or picture: it's either the most incredibly bold picture made in years, or the most incredibly offensive picture made in years. It appears to be making fun of the way people "dropped out" and took to living in communes in the Sixties and Seventies, but that was in legitimate response to all sorts of issues at the time ranging from shallow middle-class values to Vietnam and the actions of the Nixon administration. The characters in The Idiots simply seem to be making jokes and indulging themselves at other people's expense. There's nothing particularly profound in what they're doing or what happens as a result of it. Only at the end of the picture does something come together:  Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), the quiet but intense woman who joins the group yet seems apart from it (she is also the only one who, pointedly, does not participate in the film's notorious group sex scene), uses the "liberating" techniques she's found in the group to finally express feelings of sorrow and disgust that had been heretofore repressed in her. But, again, this comes at the very end of the movie, after von Trier has finished running through every possible variation he can come up with of his little, ambiguously perverse, parlor game.  

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