Why would a group of upstanding citizens of the middle class decide to meet in a large country house and get in touch with their inner idiot?
These young people are in a continual training process to get in touch with what they describe as their "inner idiot", allowing themselves to lapse into behavior outside of the constrictions imposed by a society obsessed with a mask of etiquette.
Their revolutionary behavior is demonstrated when they journey out into the "real world" to behave as though they are mentally retarded. They wander into restaurants and dribble food over themselves, speaking in gibberish, or they arrange for field trips to industrial factories where they make a mockery of the foreman. Everything they do is an attempt to break through the politically correct and achieve a cathartic response in everyone they touch, be it frustration or disgust, anger or humiliation.
They're all pretty content to revel in their idiocy because it brings them back to something primal, but are they dilettantes wasting their time pissing people off, or are they indeed tapping into something that is boldly social and political?
Writer-director Lars von Trier, who supposedly wrote the screenplay in four days and seems to rely heavily on improvisation, poses plenty of difficult questions in The Idiots and refuses to hand his audience a map. In fact, there's a rather large question mark as to whether his film is merely an elaborate prank on the viewer or a genuine attempt to question the modes of society when it comes to behavior and the attempts to homogenize creativity and spontaneity.
The character who introduces us to the world of The Idiots is Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), an ordinary woman in a yellow sweater. We first see her wandering around, uncertain where she wants to go. She goes into a restaurant and orders her meal, and witnesses three of the "idiots" wandering around playing with the patrons, who grow increasingly annoyed with their childish behavior, and the helpless waiter who attempts to maintain an atmosphere of calm within the restaurant. The tension of the scene is the inability of those in the restaurant to insult people who are "obviously" mentally handicapped and know not what they do.
Karen goes with these three, who reveal themselves to in fact be hypereducated members of the bourgeois. The leader of the group is the intense Stoffer (Jens Albinus), whose uncle owns the house in which they run their workshop. Karen passively observes their behavior around the neighborhood - running around naked in the woods, or selling cheap potted plants from house to house for an outrageous sum all the while keeping up the front of being lumbering "idiots."
She and Stoffer engage in hearty debates of exactly what their philosophy is, and why they would go to great lengths to prove a point which seems to be different for each member in the group. Their arrogant leader stresses the importance of what they are doing by savagely insulting the routines of the humdrum real world they are escaping from - the doctors, teachers, and privileged kids among them. "They are the ones who are making fun," sneers Stoffer, deflecting the argument that all they do is stir up trouble and insult those around them.
The stakes grow increasingly higher as Stoffer pushes them to break out of their shells, resulting in some of the scenes which made it so difficult to release The Idiots in this country, particularly the infamous "gang-bang" scene which results in a playful group orgy. It's not so playful when von Trier cuts to a hardcore image of a penis thrusting itself into a woman's vagina (and for the United States release, a black bar will be inserted over the insulting mail member. Funny how Basic Instinct didn't face the same problem with Sharon Stone's winking crotch.
It becomes increasingly clear to some of the members of the group, however, that Stoffer may not be able to handle the pressure he places on the shoulders of his peers. There's a crucial scene midway through the film when one of the "idiots" brings a group of people who have Down's syndrome to the house for lunch, and the pretenders are forced to look at the very people who they behave like, only without the guise of "acting" or some political ideal of being an "idiot".
The question of why anyone would want to explore their inner "idiot" or "child" varies among the members of the group, but is brought home by the crucial final scenes with Karen, where she allows herself to explore her own unspoken motivations for becoming a part of their group. It's powerfully affecting.
The Idiots is the second film to come out of the Dogme 95 Manifesto, a series of guidelines created by von Trier and Thomas (The Celebration) Vinterberg. The rules include that the film must be shot entirely hand-held, in natural light. The sound must be recorded on location (i.e., no dubbing or sound effects will be added in post-production.) Also, no "genre" films are allowed, such as horror or science fiction.
Any Dogme 95 films which break their rules must make a confession (for example, von Trier admits to using a "stunt penis" in the gang-bang scene, using a porn star instead of the actual actor for the one shot.) There's a certain amount of in-joke humor and sarcasm within the manifesto, but it does serve to "shake up" cinematic conventions which have become routine and predictable in modern film.
Of course, some may find the technical elements to be below par. It looks as though it were fairly cheap to make, and is clearly video technology - lacking the grain of film. The camera occasionally picks up the boom pole or the shadow of the cameraman as it follows the action, allowing itself to be cinema verite. It feels a little pompous, but there's no denying that it captures a certain immediacy and spontaneity in the performances which couldn't have been done any other way.
Lars von Trier has slowly been moving away from the classical filmmaking approach he used in such films as the stylized, black and white Zentropa, which, as experimental as his storytelling was, felt more or less traditional in its carefully lit cinematography.
He moved deeper with Breaking the Waves, his amazing film about a young woman's act of sacrifice for God, allowing the cameraman to shoot entirely hand-held in a documentary style, never shooting a scene the same way twice. In the editing room, he broke the rules of narrative filmmaking and conventional cutting by allowing the emotional content of the scene to dictate its flow, allowing for large jump cuts and radical transitions.
With The Idiots, he's gone further than ever before. It's a non-narrative story, with small fragments of scenes playing out entirely at their own pace. The camera moves among it's large group of characters focusing on whatever it finds most interesting, and only very slowly do some of the characters begin to emerge as personalities. It's an interactive film which allows you to take an interest in whatever characters you like, since there is always a large flurry of activity happening at any given time.
It's certainly an interesting approach to take, and substantially different than most of the films you'll see this year. It's frustrating, even annoyingly smug in its pompous display of a "new wave of filmmaking." It's annoying to feel as though von Trier has pulled one over on you by not bothering to tell a story, or show you how to feel, or even know whether or not he's insulting your lifestyle or the characters onscreen.
Rating a film which is basically an elaborate experiment or Rosarch test for the viewer is hardly an easy task. This is the type of film which drifts between being a masterpiece and an utter failure, depending on how you the viewer choose to respond to it. Ultimately, it calls for repeated viewing if you have the patience or - more important - the desire. It's decidedly not for everyone, and may alienate passive audience members (or even active ones who decide it's degrading nonsense from a smug, self satisfied little punk named Lars von Trier.) For my money, it's one of the most interesting films which will be released this year, and though I both love it and hate it, I'll give it the highest possible recommendation.