Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re bringing Lars von Trier’s The Idiots back from the dead.
The Idiots (1998)
Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Bodil Jørgensen, Jens Albinus, Anne Louise Hassing
IMDb rating: 6.9
Metacritic rating: 47
Lars von Trier has cultivated a somewhat macabre and, at times, unwarranted reputation for being controversial and provocative, yet no two more controversial films will you find in his oeuvre than The Idiots and Antichrist. Both are nihilistic to the point of destruction, antagonistic, frightening, and sexual almost to the point of depravity. Yet of the two, The Idiots is one that doesn’t just tackle conventional notions of themes and censorship – it also tackles conventional notions of cinema and filmmaking.
Von Trier mimics the point of his own story, which is that, to see the beauty in unconventional things, you have to see things differently
In this respect, The Idiots is a cinematic tsunami that dared to be different – it is a film in which the story becomes a metaphor for its own anticipated reception. The question posed in the film, “What do people think of these idiots, these retards?” becomes a question posed outside of the film: “What do people think of this strange, perhaps deranged film?” It is a film in which the characters seek to upset the bourgeoisie; it is a film in which the makers seek to challenge the bourgeoisie audience.
The Idiots was the second film released under the terms of the Dogme ’95 manifesto. Whilst retaining a strong storyline that is tense and edgy, von Trier’s film attacks all previous ideas about cinema that were once considered fundamental. The Idiots suggests that these ideas were fundamentally flawed, and it seeks to readdress what filmmaking is, and what cinema can be. It shows us that cinema can be ugly, unrefined, careless, and bestial without sacrificing an ability to engage with its audience. Through unusual camera work, narrative, composition, and editing that scars the audience rather than helps them, the filmmaker is mimicking the point of his own story, which is that to see the beauty in unconventional things, you have to see things differently. It is a conjunction of technical and ideological radicalism.
In The Idiots, a group of fairly intelligent friends, some of whom have steady jobs, get together in a commune to act out their ‘inner idiot.’ This essentially means that they walk, run and dance around as ‘retards’, the choice term used in the film itself. They ‘spazz out’ and challenge others to engage with their own inner idiot. When one of the members’ father visits the group, in a bid to rescue his daughter and take her home to normality, he rejects them, perceiving them as dangerous lunatics. In this way, the father is those spectators for whom this film is a monster, an alien that doesn’t belong in cinema.
The Idiots, and the movement that birthed it (Dogme ’95), can be compared to pivotal moments in other art forms
For a lot of people, The Idiots is something they can’t grasp, a cinematic world unto itself that belongs in a remote and dusty corner of HMV, hidden away because it is so foreign to all their notions of what filmmaking and cinema is. The Idiots, and the movement that birthed it (Dogme ’95), can be compared to pivotal moments in other art forms. In art itself, the Dada movement, which sprung up in Switzerland in 1916, was a reaction to, and a rejection of all previous art forms. The Dadaists decided that a public urinal was now art, and that giving art lectures whilst drunk was perfectly acceptable.
The Dadaists were riotous, provocative, and incomprehensible to many. For them, art had no boundaries. They sought to challenge the bourgeoisie and the capitalists who had previously sustained the art world, just like the characters in The Idiots seek to upset the bourgeoisie who control our ideas of what is normal. In literature, the 20th century saw the rise of modernism, a literary form which was a direct challenge to classicism. William Faulkner was one of the first promoters and refiners of the jump-cut in literature, a style which no doubt influenced the Dogme ’95 filmmakers, including von Trier.
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Film was always going to have its own artists who challenged the status quo; but, because cinema is so universally popular, those who challenge the conventions are put under a greater, more intense spotlight than novelists or painters. Films like The Idiots become a direct challenge to our way of life, our Friday night entertainment and our serene trips to the cinema with our partners. Not everyone reads novels, but we can be sure that everyone watches movies. Films like The Idiots are reviled in the national press because they threaten our love affair with Liam Neeson movies, popcorn and Disneyland.
Von Trier proves that it is possible to create an engaging story within the framework of a debilitating filmmaking style
The Idiots may not be the first film to challenge notions of what filmmaking and cinema should be, but it is one of the most violent and controversial – owing to von Trier’s popularity and infamy, it is one of the most memorable. A lot of people fail to see past the nudity (of which there is little) and the mimicry of mental disabilities. But underneath all this is a strong, dramatic story, with character arcs and archetypes, inciting incidents, and plot turns. Von Trier is nothing if not a good storyteller, and he demonstrates it here. He demonstrates that it is still possible to create an emotional and engaging story within the framework of a debilitating filmmaking style.
There is no added music in The Idiots – no soundtrack, no score – which makes the final scene even more brilliant in how it emotionalises and disturbs the audience. It’s a crushing climax to a remarkable film, a film which would be nothing without Lars von Trier’s unique, polarising and utterly captivating vision. The Idiots is also a humorous film – it is a film which makes use of various narrative methods to tell a story and to make a point, a film which gobbles up and spits out a myriad of cinematic techniques. Von Trier understands his means well; he understands that technical limitations can make for artistic freedom.
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All images: Palisades Tartan