RESFEST '99 REVIEW: "The Humiliated" Document of Von Trier's "Idiots"
by Stephen Garrett
“It’s of the utmost importance that we can be convincing as idiots,” declares Lars von Trier in “The Humiliated,” Jasper Jargil‘s lively documentary about the Danish filmmaker’s first official Dogme 95 movie, “The Idiots.” Still unavailable in North America (USA Films is mumbling about a Spring 2000 release, nearly two years after its Cannes debut), von Trier’s follow-up to the award-winning “Breaking the Waves” remains largely an unscreened mystery to most arthouse audiences, making this documentary a tantalizing and potentially frustrating experience for many.
But to those who have indeed seen the film, Jargil’s chronicle of the ensemble casts’ motivations and the evolution of certain scenes — including the controversial and very explicit orgy the actors gleefully stage — makes for a fascinating dissection of von Trier’s creative process and a worthy companion piece to its subject.
By choosing von Trier as his subject, Jargil is in good company: Sophie Fiennes‘ 1998 doc short “Lars from 1-10” shows the auteur filming “The Idiots” and explaining his adherence to the Dogme 95 rules. And Stig Bjorkman‘s 1997 “Tranceformer” is a brisk and only occasionally insightful overview of von Trier’s career. “The Humiliated” trumps them all, though, in that not only does Jargil have full access to the set, but also permission to use excerpts from von Trier’s own personal audio diary of the experience.
“A day in von Trier’s puppet theater,” the director jokingly refers to his own production after one arduous shoot. What emerges from the documentary is the fact that his so-called “puppets” are actually very much a part of the creative experience, actors who help the director articulate his vision and who command a surprising amount of respect from their puppetmaster, despite his derisive jibes towards their behavior. But von Trier definitely comes across as demanding: one emotional scene in which a tearful Bodil Jorgensen cries while talking to Ann Louis Hassing turned out to be a marathon session requiring over sixty takes.
Yet the director is far from an egomaniacal control freak, staying open to others’ ideas and constantly keeping focused more on the thematic spirit of his film than the actual specifics of the story. In this respect he directly credits Dogme 95 and its video aesthetic for giving him the financial liberty of indulging improvisation and letting the camera roll until unexpected epiphanies erupt. And he also confesses that “The Idiots” turned out far better than he was anticipating, in contrast to other experiences where productions that he felt would become strong movies actually disappointed him. “I think this is a good film,” he explains, “but the films I truly believed in bombed.”
“The Humiliated” gets its title from the casts’ reactions to portraying the mentally handicapped, particularly in one scene that involves actual people with Downs Syndrome. “You just have to be humiliated just like the rest,” says an unsympathetic von Trier to one angry actor. It’s this tension that is the heart of “The Idiots”: daringly offensive and dangerously close to being irresponsible, the film’s ultimate grace is its ability to maintain sympathy for its characters and even a certain poignancy by the end.
A video documentary on the notoriously filmless Dogme 95 cinema is a natural choice for the programmers of the electronically-oriented touring film festival RESFEST, although its screening did initially invite walkouts and catcalls when the state-of-the-art digital projector cropped off the movie’s subtitles for the first few minutes. Some quick on-screen menu adjustments, though, eventually shrunk down the image to fit the screen more comfortably and raise the image higher (“Shove a book under it!” hooted one low-tech audience member).