Written and directed by Lars von Trier
With Bodil Jorgensen, Jens Albinus and Anna Louise Hassing
Distributed by USA Films
Opens - supposedly - in June
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.