The Idiots (1998) dir. Lars von Trier
Starring: Anne Louise Hassing, Bodil Jørgensen, Jens Albinus, Troels Lyby
By Greg Klymkiw
To spass or not to spass; that, is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of the bourgeoisie, or to take arms against that which is a shallow sea of hypocrisy, and by the spassing, end them.
With assistance from the Bard of Avon, I ask you: Hast thou found thine inner idiot? No? Well then, get cracking, fool. In The Idiots, Lars von Trier's only official Dogme film - the movement he founded in 1995 during the 100th anniversary of movies with fellow Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg to create pure, unfettered cinema - we are introduced to a group of young people who stage a perverse form of theatre in the arena of life itself where they enter any number of public places and pretend to be mentally retarded. Drooling, screeching, screwing up their face and engaging in overtly aberrant behaviour, these want-to-be activists engage in a theatre of cruelty. Their nastiness in exploiting those who are mentally ill and/or challenged to expose the nastiness of those they accost is lost on them, until a new member to their group begins to question their motives.
Interview segments of the participants which hint at eventual discord amongst the group punctuate several set pieces wherein our ragtag group spass or, in the colloquial parlance of the politically incorrect - "spazz out", have sex, argue, make up, break up and spass with abandon.
Few movies have made me laugh as hard as Lars von Trier's The Idiots. There is no question that the wholesale slaughter of sacred cows has always been a hallmark of the brilliant bad boy from Denmark, though I suspect none of his films are as gloriously, unabashedly, delightfully repugnant in rubbing an audience's nose in the putrid fecal matter of their own prejudices and repressions generated by their holier than thou pretence to political correctness. It is a cinematic declaration of war on bourgeois values, but it cuts much deeper than the surface - Lars von Trier digs his lens like a bayonet into the foul intestines of the bourgeoisie, rips them out and tosses them to the dirt for all to see. That said, those he skewers are also those who believe they are acting in defiance of said bourgeois values, but are as much a part of the problem as they believe they are the solution.
The movie begins brilliantly in an upscale restaurant where a snooty waiter takes an order from Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), a melancholy young woman who scales back her culinary desires due to a lack of funds. Around her are couples and quartets of affluent diners - quaffing expensive wine with their opulent brunch selections and occasionally cleansing their vile bourgeois palates with overpriced mineral water. Karen's eye roams to a corner of the dining establishment where a caregiver tries to control a table of her mentally retarded adult charges. They spit up their food, whine and grunt, then - much to everyone's dismay, two of them get up and begin wandering around the restaurant. One of the retardates is relatively benign - going up to each table, smiling and saying "Hi!" The other charges about in a fury. Hands are wiped on tablecloths belonging to other diners, baskets of bread rolls are removed from others and the caregiver is quite overwhelmed trying to control her charges. When the snooty waiter insists the caregiver control her group for the sake of the other diners, it simply becomes too overwhelming for her. When the benign retard approaches Karen's table, she is touched by his innocence and purity and accompanies the group as they're forced to leave the restaurant.
Up to this point, one is compelled to laugh quite uproariously - not AT the mentally challenged people, but WITH them in their innocent flouting of bourgeois convention and the stuck-up diners who are shocked by this behaviour.
Once everyone is bundled into the cab, it becomes clear that none of them are retarded - especially when they laugh about how they were all able to dine in a fancy restaurant without paying. As it is finally established that these people are engaging in a big practical joke, the laughs the film elicits are very different indeed. Now we laugh at the darkness of this group's actions. Not only do they spass in public, but do so in private as well. Spazzing-out delivers a sense of inner peace, but also a perverse sense of accomplishment that their actions are affecting a change in society. It's somehow even more viciously funny when we discover they're all lounging about on the family estate of the one member of the group who is much a member of the club he, and the group seek to condemn.
The Idiots is a film which belongs to a long and noble tradition of cinema that seeks to shock and provoke - to downright anger an audience. That said, the real anger should be directed at those who ARE angered BY THE MOVIE ITSELF and, of course, for all the wrong reasons. I think it's safe to say that this tradition exploded in full splendour with Luis Bunuel's L'Âge d'or, the scathing 1930 indictment of bourgeois values and, for good measure, the Catholic church. Since the release of The Idiots in 1998, the great Ulrich Seidl stomped about similar stylistic territory with Dogdays and I'm even compelled to include Tom Green's universally reviled, but stunning and vastly misunderstood bit of nastiness Freddy Got Fingered.
What Lars von Trier and those others prove beyond a shadow of a doubt is that if you're going to eviscerate something, it can't be done timidly, or in half measures. As always, pure disembowelment of the bourgeoisie MUST be bold. That's probably why I love Lars von Trier - he's always about being bold. And that, frankly, is what makes for great cinema!
This month, the work of the Danish bad boy genius of cinema is being featured in a TIFF Bell Lightbox retrospective entitled "Lars von Trier: Waiting for the End of the World" running until November 19. The Idiots is just one of several pictures in this series (including his latest masterpiece Melancholia) and this movie in particular will be playing Saturday November 19, 2011 at 8:00 PM - on a big screen and projected in glorious 35mm.