The Idiots (Danish: Idioterne) is a 1998 Danish comedy-drama film directed by Lars von Trier. It is made in compliance with the Dogme ’95 Manifesto, and is also known as Dogme #2. It is the second film in von Trier’s Golden Heart Trilogy, which includes Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). It is among the first films to be shot entirely in digital.
Lars von Trier’s chastity belt is very much in evidence in The Idiots, with the shaky hand-held camera working as a sort of “alienation affect”; shots go in and out of focus and on occasion a cameraman juts into the view-scope of the second camera.
The film revolves around the anti-bourgeois group of adults spend their time seeking their “inner idiot” to release their inhibitions. They do so by behaving in public as if they were developmentally disabled. The Idiots is not concerned with actual disability, or with distinguishing between mental retardation and physical impairment.
At a restaurant, patrons are disturbed by the group’s mischief, but single diner Karen develops an appreciation of their antics. The members of the group refer to this behavior as “spassing”, a neologism derived from “spasser”, the Danish equivalent of “spaz” and an offensive slur. Karen takes a ride in a taxi cab with the people from the restaurant, and she finds herself at a big house. The apparent leader of the group, Stoffer, is supposed to be selling the house (which belongs to his uncle), but instead it becomes the focal point for group activities.
The “spassing” is a self-defeating attempt by the group to challenge the establishment through provocation. The self-styled idiots feel that the society-at-large treats their intelligence uncreatively and unchallenging; thus, they seek the uninhibited self-expression that they imagine a romantic ideal of disability will allow.
Stoffer, at his birthday party, wishes for a “gangbang”, and both clothes and inhibitions are soon discarded. But when Stoffer calls for the group members to let idiocy invade their personal daily lives, only Karen takes up the challenge. She takes Susanne back to her house, where they are greeted by surprise by Karen’s mother. Karen had been missing for two weeks, following the death of her young baby; she offers no explanation of where she has been. Karen attempts to spaz in front of her family by dribbling the food she is eating, but this results in a violent slap from her husband, Anders. Karen and Susanne leave the house.
Just looking at the Dogma on the making of the film, it lends a documentary character, but in fact The Idiots is based on a script written by the director (in four days), and a number of Denmark’s leading actors and actresses pop up in minor roles.
In couple of trickle scenes the director seems to try to genuinely depict the feelings and emotions of intellectually retarded people faced with a climate of misunderstanding and hostility. More often the scenes are evidently designed to provoke—as when for example the “mentally retarded” Stoffer is asked what he wants for his birthday. Group sex, he retorts, and the scene is played out in an ugly and self-conscious fashion. On another occasion the group rambles miserably through the woods and Stoffer ruminates on the aims of the group. “Inside everybody is an inner idiot.” He asks, “What do you do about a society which is becoming richer and richer, but where no one is happier?” His response is to “play the Idiot”. The idiot, he explains is the man of the future—the key to happiness is to liberate the inner idiot, to let the inner idiot out.
Von Trier is honest enough to show that the attempt to establish a sort of commune based on the principle of revealing and releasing the inner idiot fails. Stoffer’s demands on the group intensify. He asks them to leave the security of the group and act like idiots in their normal surroundings of work and family. The majority of the group (one explains he is a doctor, another gives lectures on art history) fail at this hurdle. A series of interviews with the actors at the conclusion of the film is interspersed with the action. Most of them declare their disillusionment with the whole project. Some want nothing more to do with the other members of the group.
Von Trier’s development as a filmmaker is, in many respects, not accidental and certainly not exceptional. On the basis of The Idiots, one concludes that he is evidently motivated by a dislike, even disgust for society as it stands. At the same time he is apparently blind to any way of changing society in a meaningful way. He has chosen the well-trodden and fairly tattered path of individual self-liberation. There is something a bit provincial in all this, but von Trier seems to be espousing the notion, popular during the radicalization of the 1960s, that mental disorder represents a higher and superior form of perception. And when that fails, there is always faith.
In all von Trier’s films titillate and provokes the indisputable and also an accurate portrayal of the anguish and frustration of a section of today’s intelligentsia, unhappy in their own skins, but unable or unwilling to explore the possibilities for genuine social change—not a pretty sight and by no means the basis for a renewal of film culture.
- Direction and Screenplay: Lars von Trier.
- Cast: Bodil Jørgensen, Jens Albinus, Anne Louise Hassing, Troels Lyby, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Louise Mieritz, Henrik Prip, Luis Mesonero, Knud Romer Jørgensen
- Language: Danish