on 7 May 2011
Never one to shy from a bit of controversy, Danish director Lars Von Trier caused a storm in 1998 with The Idiots. Since then, he has started making American movies that seem almost misogynistic in it's attitudes to women. His films put their female protagonist through horrifying and gruelling psychological and physical abuse. But the controversy stirred up by The Idiots wasn't because of its portrayal of women, but its apparently sadistic mockery of the mentally disabled.
The film follows a bunch of young men and women, living together in a large house owned by the uncle of Stoffer (Jens Albinus), who spend their time pretending to be mentally ill and finding their 'inner idiot'. They pick up an apparently lost woman Karen (Bodil Jorgensen) at a restaurant and she joins them, equally fascinated and repulsed by their acts. As Karen searches for her inner idiot, the group continue to 'spas' (Danish equivalent of 'spaz') at various locations, seemingly for their own amusement. Stoffer is meant to be selling the house for his uncle, but since the group has settled their, he uses the group as a means to scare away any potential buyers. However, tensions start to develop in the group, mainly due to the increasingly aggressive and unpredictable behaviour of the unstable Stoffer.
It's difficult to work out who exactly Von Trier is poking fun at. It could be the group themselves, who claim to be anti-bourgeois and anti-middle class, yet seem to only use this claim when it frees them from responsibility. A member of the group, who has run away from his wife and his child, thinks about returning, only to describe the thought of pushing his child around in a pram as 'so middle class'. Or the film could be making fun of society's attitudes to the mentally disabled. When a potential buyer for the house is told by Stoffer that a house for the mentally ill has opened next door, the woman is clearly uncomfortable at the idea of them encroaching on their ideal middle class existence. When the group surrounds her, she panics and flees, most likely never to return.
It is not a film that lays out its purpose as clear as day. If there is a social message in the film at all is again unclear. What is clear is that The Idiots is a challenging, frustrating, funny, intelligent and extremely uncomfortable film. Von Trier's desire to be as controversial as possible has been evident in the majority of his films - the clitoris removal in Antichrist, the cold, brutal ending of Dancer In The Dark. I usually find annoying in a filmmaker (Gaspar Noe comes to mind, apart from his exceptional Irreversible), but Von Trier's ability to genuinely unsettle is the work of an extremely interesting and gifted filmmaker.
Although it breaks many of the rules, The Idiots is the second film in the Dogme '95 manifesto, started by Thomas Vinterberg's Festen, using natural light, hand-held cameras, and avoiding anything implicating genre or superficial action. The film also depicts apparently un-simulated hardcore sex, in a highly controversial scene in which the group take place in a gang-bang while in their 'idiot' character-mode.
A love-it-or-hate-it film, but I found it truly original and fascinating.
on 14 November 2002
It is a shame that more publicity has been made about the Dogma 95 experiment than about the products they rendered. So try looking beyond the Dogma stamp. The Idiots is an amazing film built upon a complex story and reveals elements of the human condition rarely revealed on the big screen. Von Trier is an expert at creating shocking cinema. Not only is it shocking because it is filmed differently than almost any other film you've seen, but it is also shocking because it is filled with nudity, vulgarity and controversial themes. It makes fun of mentally retarded adults under the guise of a serious social experiment. It has violent fights, an orgy scene... Despite all this, try looking beyond the shocking elements. What you will find beyond all the things that many critics chose not to look past is an emotionally powerful portrayal of a group of individuals searching for a way in which to view their identity in a way that is devoid of all social artifices. It is a story of a people trying to actively live out an idea that there is something essential about their being which can be reached through an extreme modification of their behaviour. It becomes increasingly clear throughout the narrative that these people are running away from who they are rather than finding something essential. The emotional tension that is being withheld slowly rises to the surface and culminates in one of the most devastating scenes I've ever witnessed. It is moving not just because it deals with death, but because it illuminates in an exaggerated fashion the way in which people in society today hide from themselves and subsequently reveal themselves to be frail and insecure. Of course, all of the elements that go into making this such a shocking film are inextricably incorporated into the emotional power created. You need to watch this film while withholding moral judgements and consider the issues that are being so skilfully portrayed in a way no other director was able to do before Dogma 95.
on 12 October 2009
It's easy to confuse the adjectives "controversial" and "thought-provoking". The difference is that the former is a concept manufactured by the media and the latter is the raison d'etre of film-makers like Lars von Trier. Ostensibly this is a film about a group of people pretending to have cerebral palsy. But obviously that's not what it's really about; and I think that only those without the inclination to seek one of many possible meanings would label it "controversial" on this basis. It's classic knee-jerk.
The Idiots is a challenging indictment of middle-class hypocrisies and an enthralling deconstruction of the bohemian ideal.
Early in the film the question keeps being asked: Why is what we're doing wrong? "Because you're poking fun." But who really comes out of the narrative looking idiotic? The stuttering patio-owner, fearful of a potential insurance claim? Josephine's father, who tears his weeping daughter away from her friends? Rarely it's The Idiots themselves, whose motivations are subtly sketched out as Stoffer's commune collapses around him.
Stoffer himself is "anti-middle-class", suggesting he's simply afraid of growing up. There's the doctor, constantly writing notes, who may be treating the whole affair as some kind of social experiment. There's the marketing man, using the commune as an escape from the superficiality of his truly idiotic occupation. And there's Karen, our silent observer, whose own reasons for falling in love with The Idiots comes to flatten us in the final reel. This leads to a gripe: certain characters remain nothing MORE than sketches. I would have liked to see von Trier eschew some of the social confrontation scenes in favour of further narrative episodes.
Some scenes - such as the door-to-door Christmas decoration sale, or the house-buyers' tour - may come across as crass and cruel, but they're fascinating insofar as they present the hypocrisies that lie in the heart of us all.
Perhaps the impact of The Idiots' public "spassing" is softened somewhat in these post-Borat/Bruno days. But von Trier is a trickier customer than Baron Cohen. As such, we laugh aloud, but we're never quite sure of who we're laughing - or, indeed, if we should be laughing at all. Watch this, and then watch how all other films seem quaint by comparison.
on 28 February 2006
Most people are drawn to this film simply because of the chic (though quickly diminishing) appeal of the Dogme 95 manifesto, and through the curiosity factor raised by the film's brief, though certainly explicit, mid-narrative gang-bang. I think this is a bit of a shame, because beneath the façade of daring social satire and beyond the conceptual restrictions of the Dogme movement, there is a touching and affecting story here, which, in terms of emotional relevance and characterisation, is easily as endearing and beautifully realised as the bleak portrayals found in von Trier's other films, Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. It is important to note also, that The Idiots forms something of a loose trilogy with the two films aforementioned, in which von Trier, inspired by an old Danish children's book, set out to make three films that each dealt with a naïve and almost childlike female protagonist, who, during the course of the film, sacrifices absolutely everything that she had at the beginning of the story, in order to undergo a kind of emotional and spiritual transcendence at the end.
As with many of von Trier's more recent films, the plot is deceptively simple... in the first scene (a disorienting mish-mash of fly-on-the-wall, candid camera and Luis Buñuel) we are introduced to the character of Karen, a meek and pensive woman, who, being unable to afford the more expensive items at a fancy upper-class restaurant, is chastised by the waiter and frowned upon by the curious clientele. At the far end of the restaurant we find a young carer, with two grown-up, mentally handicapped men. When one of the men takes hold of Karen's hand, our shy protagonist kindly agrees to help the young man out to the car. However, once there, the young man still refuses to let go, and the group, with Karen quietly in tow, eventually meet up with another group and embark upon a bizarre and shambolic tour of an insulation factory. These first ten minutes of the film (incorporating both the scene at the restaurant and the scene at the factory) are the most disarming, with von Trier throwing the audience into Karen's subjective perspective, and forcing us, as it were, to spend time with these people in order to understand and, to some extent, better appreciate the central ideology of the film.
By the time we discover that the idiots are "faking it" as part of some ill informed social experiment, we are forced, much like Karen, to take sides and make the decision... are we willing to spend another two hours in the company of these idiots? The rest of the film unfolds in a similarly episodic, fly-on-the-wall style, as the idiots try to get one over on the bourgeoisie by "spassing-out" in public places (restaurants, swimming pools, parks, bars and suburban estates) or unwinding at the posh, upper-class house of their self-elected leader, Stoffer. As the group mentality is pushed further and relationships strained, we watch Karen come to terms with the group and the sense of emotional liberation connected to the "inner-idiot". Whereas the other members of the group are privileged, arrogant and self-centred, Karen remains detached, though simultaneously in awe of the way these characters have seemingly cast off the problems of the everyday world and thus, as a result of this, it is Karen who remains the only member of the group willing to take her "spassing" to the next emotional level come the film's agonising closing moments.
For me, it is the character of Karen that really makes the film work, and I feel saddened by the fact that the previous commentators have made little to no reference of her or the actress who portrays her. Here, Bodil Jørgensen gives a brave performance that is certainly less showy than some of the other characterisations (particularly Stoffer, Jeppe, Josephine, Axel and Katrine), creating a believable character who, throughout the course of the film, reveals subtle emotional layers that allude to some unspoken sense of personal tragedy that is only really discussed towards the end of the film. The final scene of the picture, for me, is one of the most important scenes of the film (much more important than the majority of confrontational scenes that became the principal talking points), with Karen allowing her emotions to completely consume her, and thus, illustrating the allure of "spassing" and the freedom and catharsis that can be attained through such an act of emotional simplification.
It is of course important to take into consideration the group dynamic and the daring and emotionally honest performances from all involved (particularly Jens Albinus, Anne Louise Hassing, Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Louise Mieritz), though, for me, it is the plight of Karen and her sense of sacrifice that ultimately defines the underling message of the film. Naturally, there is no getting away from the formal and technical constraints of the Dogme movement, with the film employing hand-held cameras, jump-cuts, natural lighting, no props and no post-synchronised sound, however, these factors should be seen as part of the visualisation of the text, as opposed to an empty aesthetic. Those that see the film and merely take from it the sense of experimentation and the surface controversy of theme and content (the explicit sexual footage takes up about five minutes of screen time in a film that runs for more than two hours) are really missing the point, whilst to limit the effect and purpose of the film to something as juvenile and trivial as the miss-treatment of the mental disabled, is on a par with people citing À bout de soufflé as being noting more than the film that gave us the nouvelle vague.
The Idiots is a film that goes much deeper than the central notion of intelligent characters acting the idiot, and instead, presents us with an honest and heartbreaking film about personal loss and the act of overcoming.
Hand held auteur creates one, if not the, most bitterest pills composed of satire(s) of middle class angst wringing, focusing on mental health (dis)ability ever undertaken. The only equivalent is Chris Morris "Four Lions" based on the War on Terror.
Works on so many layers, as a multi-dimensional pronged attack, on all taken for granted sensibilities, ripping apart the beliefs about being abled, disabled, mental, psychological and socially, trampling upon the norms.
Explored with a vial of ferociousness inducing shock, guffaws and a deep pause for reflection...emmmmm.
Hilariously funny sequences abound, and these depend on where you are at, as to when the shrieks emerge. Working in the field, the responses from the various onlookers are crucial to the film as it pushes the envelope and then licks its sticky contours. Funny- the actual acting out of the "mental health condition" or the various reactions to it, or the gall of the people involved in the excruciating situations they put themselves in. Going to the bikers bar and getting his d.ick held, is one of the most nerve wracking pieces on the film, as he takes their good nature and plays with it.
Meanwhile the viewer is continuously forced to confront what they are laughing at- harking back to such staple fayre as the various Saturday night entertainment capers of being framed/humiliated, to digging into the whole mental health framework and its continued ongoing construction of "madness." Filled with the complete rejection of bourgeois norms, as each strand upholding the tent of normality is castigated in this full frontal emotional portrayal of gross nudity, on display and then booted in the head with a deep draft of reflection.
Apart from the uproarious-laughter, is the sudden emergency emotional brake applied in quick reflexes, as the viewer is yanked into a maze of true madness; the bourgeois lifestyles the group is opposing, the locked doors and the desire to relocate from human pollution. It is an attack on eugenics.
The "problems" emerging within the everyday worlds. Finally, the focus switches to the fragmenting internal group madness, where the full scale pronged attack leads to emerging psychotic states, latent within the group- the tripwire is evident in Stoffer's reaction to the outside parties. His vitriolic anger boils and erupts, no longer an act but a visceral reaction to the world which condemns him.
Whilst many will blanche at the sheer white gall, this is a must see film- as it batters the presumed precocious PC attitudes on all fronts, whilst taking a huge sideswipe at all nasty belief systems. Aimed to make the viewer confront their sense of demarcation from the other, "the idiot within" and whether the lifetyles on offer relate to the outward idiocy of a herd belief or the person who wants to break free of any constraint.
I think Nietzsche would have approved, at least.
This is where the "fool" has a different perception to the King and often sees the world for what it is rather than what it has been imagined. Who is under attack here?
A group of 30-something's living together in Copenhagen spend their spare time pretending to be 'Idiots' (kinda), hence the name of the film.
I don't want to say much about the actual content of the film, you're better finding that out for yourselves. What I will say though, is that there were a number of people I know who watched this on my recommendation, and got very upset. In a way I can appreciate the fact that they did get upset. However, this is a film, a piece of fiction, call it what you will but it's not real.
It seemed to me they got upset because they felt that this film did not deal sympathetically with the mentally ill or mentally handicapped. In my opinion they did deal sympathetically with this often touchy subject. For me the central premise was that ignorance can be bliss, and when you cast off the baggage of life in the 21st century and embrace your inner idiot, albeit just for a little while, there is a joy which can be found. Almost like being a kid again ... almost.
Doing this for extended periods of time _can_ prove unhealthy, and this is also demonstrated.
Wait for the twist in the tale too. It is genuinely unexpected.
If you can handle the hand-held cameras and lack of special lighting and music effects (which you can, of course), sit back and watch something original, dark, funny, a little unsettling, but very satisfying. Lars von Trier, you are a genius.
on 25 May 2014
Strangley disturbing film. Quite unreal. Couldn't quite get to grips with it. Yet I couldn't stop watching those strange characters. Like a kid at the circus, fascinated by the events unfolding. Couldn't make up my mind if it was serious cinema, or whether they were having a laugh at us, the audience.
on 3 July 2016
The first time I saw this movie I really disliked it, but being a von Trier fan I decided to give it another go. It appealed to me much more after a second viewing and I'm still thinking about it weeks later. Only Lars Von Trier could make a film about a group of people pretending to be mentally handicapped, and then turn around and slap the audience in the face with searing truth.
Couldn't give this 5 stars due to the cropped aspect ratio (1.66:1) and lack of extras.
on 16 April 2006
This was the second film made according to the 10 "Vows of Chastity" of the Dogme 95 manifesto, penned by von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg (who directed the first Dogme film, Festen). The manifesto is included on the extras of this DVD.
The film follows a group of people who pretend to have serious learning difficulties as a form of therapy. So it's pretty twisted stuff. This isn't one of von Trier's truly great films, but it's certainly a one-off and is very much worth watching.
Another impressive outing for Von Trier, and again one surrounded by controversy. The plot about a group of people acting like they are mentally retarded for various reasons is enough to stir up anger, but it more importantly stirs up thoughts, and we get a real sense of society's lack of understanding, fear, and judgement of the mentally retarded. The films most thought provoking parts are when we see the public's reactions to their behaviour, some smile and try not to show any nervousness, others simply avoid them, and it is a very effective look at our ideals. However, even this is turned on its head as the group are infiltrated by a genuine group of mentally retarded people, and some of them cannot cope. As we see the group falling apart, we learn their different reasons for pursuing such an idea, some for fun, some to expose 'middle-class fascism', others because it makes them ecstatically happy. The group leader of sorts, Stoffer takes it all seriously, often going too far in the eyes of the others, but explains that everyone has an inner idiot that we should all learn to embrace. The film follows the group's exploits, taking in a new member Karen who seems sympathetic, at first not understanding why they do it, but intrigued by it. She too eventually joins in. However, several outside intrusions from the real world and from family members mean that the group begins to fall apart. Stoffer claims that the only way to prove if you are worthy of the group and dedicated to your inner idiot is to stop 'spazzing', as they call it, in front of strangers, but in front of their closest friends and family. Karen agrees to try this, and her past is revealed.
The film, according to the Dogma rules, was filmed by hand-held, and is all the more powerful for it. Each performance is powerful and very convincing, and we are left questions our own attitudes. The most shocking scenes were believed to be the gang-bang scenes featuring full frontal nudity. Although short, and an important part of the plot, they were cut to an extent, with black boxes covering certain areas. The film has since been shown uncut, and has gained critical success. However, it will never reach a mainstream audience, and therefore very few people will be affected by it. As Von trier's reputation grows though, more people will return to this, which can only be good.
This DVD features a trailer, filmographies, stills, and information on the Dogma manifesto from 1995. Nothing special considering the controversy surrounding the films, but still worth buying if you're a fan of European cinema