THE IDIOTS

Written and directed by Lars von Trier

With Bodil Jorgensen, Jens Albinus and Anna Louise Hassing

Distributed by USA Films

***1/2

Opens - supposedly - in June



Lou Reed wasn't talking about film distribution and exhibition when he wrote "the first thing you learn is that you've always got to wait," but his words are all too applicable to it.  The best "new" films I've seen in 2000 are THE IDIOTS (made in 1998), Lodge Kerrigan's CLAIRE DOLAN (also from 1998) and Robert Kramer's WALK THE WALK (made in 1996, and premiering posthumously.) I can't even blame THE IDIOTS' delay entirely on American distributors' unwillingness to pick up foreign films. Bought by the now-defunct October Films almost two years ago, it's been sitting on their shelf for a number of reasons, including ratings problems and the absorption of October into USA Films.  (André Téchiné's ALICE ET MARTIN, which October acquired around the same time, has suffered the same fate.) Thankfully, the Film Society of Lincoln Center  managed to convince USA Films to allow them to screen THE IDIOTS for one day.  One wonders why October/USA found it worthwhile to buy the rights to a film in the first place if they're none too enthused about releasing it, and why they'd acquire such a  film that includes hardcore sex and copious nudity if they're contractually bound to release it with an R rating. (Despite advance reports that the Walter Reade would be screening the uncensored version, they showed the R-rated one, which covers almost all the genitalia with black bars.) It's sad to see a film this good fall victim to the corporate takeover of independent distributors, and I hope USA Films keeps their word by releasing it later this year.

The "idiots" are a commune of drop-outs who live in a collective house in a rich Copenhagen neighborhood. Led by Stoffer (Albinus), they love to pull pranks in public by pretending to be mentally handicapped and creating embarrassing situations exposing bourgeois hypocrisy. (The house is owned by a relative of Stoffer's, who lent it  to him on the grounds that he look for a buyer.) According to Stoffer, these stunts aren't pure acts of provocation; he backs them up with a half-baked, neo-hippie philosophy about finding one's "inner idiot."  Cut in with  scenes of daily life in the commune are interview segments with its members, who discuss its eventual dissolution. Karen (Jorgensen), their newest and neediest member, is the subject of much of the discussion.

I don't doubt that the Dogma 95 manifesto was originally intended as a prank or publicity stunt; von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg have admitted they drew it up in a drunken half hour. However, its effect on other filmmakers has been so great that their intentions don't really matter. While von Trier started out as a die-hard mannerist, making  complicated genre pastiches like THE ELEMENT OF CRIME and ZENTROPA, his best work - the first season of THE KINGDOM and BREAKING THE WAVES - captures fantasies and parables through a "realistic" style of handheld camera-work and jump cuts. Given this dichotomy,  it's hard for me to take the  manifesto at its word. While it offers the kind of naive assumptions about realism that suggest a black & white documentary about American life in the 50s is automatically more truthful than  melodramas like Nicholas Ray's BIGGER THAN LIFE and Douglas Sirk's WRITTEN ON THE WIND, von Trier the filmmaker seems concerned with reality only as a stylistic device. For all the documentary trappings of THE IDIOTS, the realism/fantasy paradox continues here: the real setting and "realistic" style describe people who act as though they're perpetually on camera.

Although THE IDIOTS will be the fourth Dogma film to make it into American theaters, it was the second one completed,  originally premiering alongside Thomas Vinterberg's THE CELEBRATION at Cannes in 1998. As Theo Panyaides suggests, the manifesto "fits so perfectly with its back-story one wouldn't be
surprised to learn Von Trier had dreamed up the whole Dogma business just for the purposes of this one movie - even though, intriguingly enough, the two seem
to be at cross-purposes." So far, the Dogma team  has given its stamp of approval to two first-rate films (this one and THE CELEBRATION), one facile exercise in provocation (Harmony Korine's JULIEN DONKEY BOY) and one exercise in labored quirkiness (Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's MIFUNE). It's easy to see the idiots' commune as a metaphor for the Dogma 95 collective, and their exaltation of "idiocy" as a parallel to Dogma's quest for realism and determination to strip film down to its essentials. But THE IDIOTS contains none of the manifesto's naiveté; its  intricate self-critique  acknowledges the hypocrisies and evasions that mar JULIEN DONKEY-BOY and MIFUNE.

 The antics of the commune had me laughing my head off, but I never felt particularly sympathetic to their methods or convinced of Stoffer's sincerity. His honorable goal of exposing bourgeois hypocrisy sometimes succeeds, as when a woman who's interested in buying the house  erupts in a spasm of the worst kind of NIMBYism, but he spends just as much time in pointless mean-spiritedness. Furthermore, the commune itself suffers from its own share of hypocrisy. Faced with a real group of the mentally handicapped, they don't behave any more compassionately than the people they  confront. The film's first half is a relatively straightforward, even giddy comedy - the best episode of the TOM GREEN SHOW ever made - but its tone gradually turns darker once the idiots' own neuroses begin to be revealed and the outside world starts making demands on them.

The true worth of the commune's project is embodied by Karen, not Stoffer. The other idiots are slumming members of the bourgeoisie they profess to hate, but she seems to be from a relatively poor background. Although she's the only one who questions Stoffer's fondness for provocation, she finds something genuinely therapeutic in his anarchism. At first, she seems like a second incarnation of Bess in BREAKING THE WAVES: her body language suggests a childlike fragility, even if her words don't. Yet she ultimately turns out to be stronger than most of the other members, who run back to the comforts of middle-class life  under pressure. BREAKING THE WAVES outraged many  viewers by tolling a definitive "yes" to the question of whether there's anything noble about self-destructive behavior undertaken out of good intentions or idealism. With THE IDIOTS, von Trier has gone back to questions, not answers. The film's real daring lies not in its orgy scenes (which look remarkably  playful next to equally explicit Miserable Arthouse Sex films like ROMANCE and L'ENNUI), but in its refusal to make it easy to judge its characters. Although Karen's final sacrifice is not as extreme as that of Bess, it provides the set-up for an astonishing private culmination to the collective "idiocy". Are her actions brave or pathetic? I'm still not sure, and I think both might be true.  I do know one thing: despite the Dogma 95 filmmakers' tendency to  be duped by cheap shock value and shoddy craftsmanship, they've twice tapped a vein of real pain and catharsis.