Lars von Trier’s The Idiots is my first encounter with a Dogme 95 film. Dogme 95 was an avant-garde filmmaking movement, begun in 1995 that saw a group of Danish directors release a manifesto of rules by which their films would be produced. The basis of the rules were to strip filmmaking back to its traditional values of story, acting and theme and forbade the likes of artificial lighting, music, additional props and special effects and had specific rules based around how and where a film was shot. The minimalist and realist films which were created saw their director go uncredited and often their cast and crew unpaid. The Idiots was von Trier’s first Dogme film and the second overall.
Perhaps somewhat predictably for Lars von Trier, The Idiots is a film that was marred in controversy. The controversy came from two aspects of the film. The first was the plot which revolves around a group of anti-bourgeois Danes who sometimes pretend to have mental disabilities in public. They refer to this as ‘spassing’ and are often both convincing and cruel in their depictions. The second controversial aspect of the movie is the graphic sex and nudity. For a director whose next film is to be called Nymphomaniac, this might not be surprising but The Idiots contains scenes of both male arousal and full vaginal intercourse, the likes of which I’ve never seen in a narrative film.
I was tempted to call The Idiots a brave film but to be perfectly honest I don’t think that von Trier really cares if he’s being brave or overly controversial. He is simply making a Lars von Trier film and if that film contains graphic nudity or politically incorrect themes then so be it. While I’d avoid the term brave, I’m happy to call the film bold. The central idea is quite frankly both interesting and upsetting. It makes for cringe worthy viewing but at the same time it’s difficult to take your eyes off the screen. Our brains are hardwired to know when something is wrong but we can’t help but look. (How many of you have seen Two Girls, One Cup or watched Saddam Hussein’s death for example). We have an innate curiosity and it is that same curiosity which forms part of the ‘spassing’. How far can they go? Where is the limit? Although I felt that the topic was of interest, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s also incredibly offensive. I was willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt, hoping that it would draw an inspired conclusion to the offensiveness but this failed to materialise and didn’t help to offset the uncomfortable and impertinent themes. Despite this, I don’t feel like the film was being offensive for the sake of it.
As I mentioned in my opening, this was the first Dogme film that I’ve seen. I’ve been aware of the idea for several years and was intrigued by its principles but was still shocked by the raw, amateurish nature of the production. Amateurish is a harsh word to use but that is exactly how the film comes off. While I respect the ideas behind the collective I personally see it as a waste of talent. When you see someone whose visuals can be as beautiful as von Trier’s, producing a film in which the camera is out of focus and the boom can be seen, you can’t help but feel sad. The reason I want to watch a Lars von Trier film is because he is capable of making beautiful and thought provoking cinema. Watching The Idiots, I couldn’t help feeling like I could have produced it. As I said, I like the idea and respect its principles but I want my filmmakers to make films using the best of their skills and knowledge, not holding back because of self imposed rules.
The acting is one of the highlights of The Idiots with the entire cast giving terrific, natural performances. Some of the acting, both when spassing and straight, is breathtaking and it looks so realistic that the film often feels like a documentary. The low rate visuals and hand held camera help to reinforce this image. The sexual content is fairly brief but very graphic. I found this much less offensive than the spassing but can understand why it caused a sensation fifteen years ago. The public just isn’t used to seeing erections and penetrative sex on screen and it’s a taboo which is still in place despite our relative sexual liberation. For me the sexual content wasn’t just there to shock but it served a purpose. Personally I found the lingerie scene in Star Trek into Darkness more distasteful as at least here there was a reason for it.
Overall I can’t say I enjoyed The Idiots. It’s a compelling and unabashed film about a topic which few other directors would touch but I found its brazen themes and Dogme style quite off-putting despite some fantastic acting and admittedly interesting concepts.