REVIEW: Are You in On the Joke? "Idiots" Comes to America
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/4.27.2000) -- Even before all this Dogma 95 nonsense, a Lars von Trier film seemed like an elaborate practical joke. Was he duping us or enlightening us? Oh, well, as long as we were entertained.
"Zentropa" (1991), for example, is a film best left unanalyzed -- you absorb it rather than experience it. Yet it remains one of the most visually inventive movies of the last 20 years -- an American (played by a Frenchman) goes to post-World War II Germany and discovers there are still Nazis out and about, all to the tune of Max von Sydow's hypnotic voice. "The Kingdom" (1994) and "The Kingdom, Part II" (1997) are his own "Twin Peaks," films so bizarre in nature it's best to just go out and rent them and see for yourself. He uses his camera like a dentist's drill, boring directly into his characters and unveiling their deepest quirks.
Finally, nearly two years after premiering at Cannes, his most audacious foray into hot-foot territory, "The Idiots" opens here in America, decidedly shorn of its manhood, thanks to the addition of superimposed black bars, but here nonetheless. Though it does not feature the confrontational power of past Danish works -- von Trier's own "Breaking the Waves" (1996) and Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration" (1998) -- "The Idiots," in Danish with subtitles, is perhaps more complex. As a viewer, you're never sure whether you're in on the joke.
"The Idiots" are a group of yuppie-ish people who go around in public acting retarded. They are duping the general public, observing reactions, celebrating their victories and, in the beginning of the film, getting their restaurant bill comped on the condition they get the hell out of there.
The idea, as Stoffer (Jens Albinus) -- the tall, handsome blond man who pushes the agenda of the group -- puts it, is to "discover the inner idiot in all of us." In other words, the tedium and predictability of everyday life is due to the fact we are cornered into a course of action by society, from jobs dictating our schedules to families dictating our time and attention. We all become, in essence, hammered into the same person.
By acting the fool, they are simultaneously waking up their joke victims and liberating their own feelings and emotions. A group discussion after the forays, such as at the restaurant or a visit to a factory, is a handy aid for analysis. "Society is getting richer and richer," says one member, "but not getting any happier."
At the center of this group, which is about a dozen strong, is Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), who has just joined because she "would have joined anything," as one person points out. It is implied that Karen's husband has left her, and she is at first horrified by the disrespect of being retarded, but quickly realizes how it can liberate her as well.
Also in the cult, for that's what it is really, are two attractive blond women, Susanne (Anne Louis Hassing) and Nana (Trine Michelsen), a boyish man, Jeppe (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) with obvious insecurities, and Axel (Knud Romer Jorgensen) who seems the most normal and actually holds down a job.
Sometimes they bully the people they are deceiving, as when a few of them go door-to-door collecting money to fight their "afflictions" and threaten to sue a homeowner whose cobblestones they have accidentally-on-purpose tripped over. At other times, they place themselves at the mercy of their "victims," as when Jeppe tries to befriend tattoo-laden bikers at a local pub.
Once, for experiment's sake, they invite a group of real retarded people to their estate. Stoffer, consistently the cruelest of the bunch, suggests they "gas them," and rushes to take pictures of them, though noting, "It's a pity we can't capture their genes on film."
As they go deeper into their own psyches and perpetuate the charade, it strains the group and drives some into a more disturbed state of mind. At times, it's not clear whether the inner idiots are turning into full-blown idiots -- being driven crazy by their own alter egos -- or still acting their part.
By now, Dogma 95 films -- which eschew any artificial manipulation of film, from photography to props (with the notable exception of editing) -- have to be taken very seriously. Like the French New Wave films of the late 1950s and early 60s, they have a distinctive visual look all their own and explore serious themes, mostly the deeper quirks of people and families who seem normal on the surface.
It's also remarkable how similar these Dogma films are, whether they're made by von Trier, Vinterberg or Soren Kragh-Jacobsen ("Mifune"). That's the point, though: the directors don't take official credit for their work, as that's a conceit outlawed by the Dogma 95 manifesto.
There's something interesting going on here, all right, even though there are stretches in all of these movies -- "The Idiots" included -- where it all seems so fake or overdone, from a hand-held camera jockeying for position for something as innocuous as revealing what someone is eating to a tendency toward contrived melodramatic moments when characters weep for little or no reason.
When a man comes to try and reclaim his daughter from the group, Stoffer, who is slowly cracking under strain of their escapades (or is he?), tells him "if you could see things differently you might see the beauty of (life)."
In a way, that's what von Trier, in the second half of his career, and his Dogma colleagues are doing. They're willing to play the fool for us in order to experiment with a new kind of cinema, a pared down vision in an increasingly CGI world. While von Trier's masterpiece, one suspects, will always be "Breaking the Waves," "The Idiots" is one tightly edited, intensely acted parlor game.
[G. Allen Johnson is a film critic for indieWIRE and the San Francisco Examiner. He has also written for the Bloomington Herald Times, Pasadena Star-News, Los Angeles Daily News and Indianapolis Star.]