TWO YEARS AFTER Lars von Trier divided critical opinion at Cannes (and offended many viewers), the second Dogma 95 film finally reaches our shores. Shot according to Dogma's overhyped rules for a pared-down cinema aesthetic, The Idiots aims to startle and transgress. The members of a motley commune stage rowdy, unpredictable put-ons to upset polite Denmark, pretending to be mentally retarded, drooling, uncontrollable "spassies"—simultaneously recalling Brecht, Ken Kesey, and Tom Green.
written and directed by Lars von Trier
runs June 9-22 at Grand Illusion
Call the results hoaxes or happenings or provocations against bourgeois society, but don't take them lightly, says the group's charismatic but unstable leader Stoffer (Jens Albinus). "They're searching for their inner idiot," he proclaims of his followers, while sneering at "middle-class crap" and "fascists" they're supposedly attacking. Are they really? Given the in-your-face impoliteness of his film, von Trier (Breaking the Waves, The Kingdom) has been accused of sensationalism without cause—as if it were he, not Stoffer, whose manifestoes ring hollow. "There is something more than meaningfulness and purposefulness," we're told, but it would be a mistake to associate Stoffer's hypocrisy and megalomania with the director.
Instead, The Idiots is a grotesque, funny, and occasionally poignant mistake—but not the artistic failure it's been labeled. Less daring than it purports to be, it's a study of a self-created, self-described "family" of misfits coming apart at the seams. Rather than destroying the social order, they destroy themselves. Idiot rampages alternate with documentary after-the-fact interviews with the participants, like members of a cult after deprogramming. Yet we're caught up in their giddiness, the sense of ever-rising stakes to their stunts, and there's certainly much nervous laughter along the way. In addition, however, there's pissing, disrobing, and fucking that's resulted in little black bars being placed over genital regions to earn The Idiots non-NC-17 US distribution status. (Far more disturbing are the idiots' table manners.)
Although von Trier introduces one vulnerable outsider, Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), to inject some moral consequence to his tale, the net effect is like a demented Method actors workshop or MTV's The Real World on acid. All this wailing intensity and gnashing of teeth—for what? The big moments of Acting are supposed to mean something, to signal some sort of authenticity, but don't. Yet it's surely also part of von Trier's point that these self-styled provocateurs are mainly performing for one another. He succeeds at making us squirm in discomfort—analogously to the on-screen onlookers being pranked. "It was an experiment," someone claims defensively. And you're glad when it's over.