Aspiring to free cinema from the “deadly embrace of sensation,” Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg sought authenticity through obstruction, liberating the form by restricting its access to optical effects, musical cues and narrative tropes. The resulting movement, known as Dogme 95, would strip film culture of its adherence to fantasy, disconnecting from Hollywood escapism and European intellectualism in equal measure, favoring unfettered honesty at the expense of aesthetic superficiality.
Von Trier’s The Idiots bears the mark of this primitivistic ideology from its opening shot, presenting the film’s title in bone white chalk on the planks of a hardwood floor. His photography captures the imperfections of handheld camera work, wavering with the quiver of a palm and settling for off-kilter angles, probing each location based on an actor’s position or the continuous flow of dialogue and sound. Background noise and music infiltrate each scene diegetically, lending a cluttered veracity to sequences filmed in a cafe and succeeding passages of impropriety, emulating the human ear’s ability to interpret multiple frequencies.
Despite the outwardly organic appearance and lack of directorial credit, von Trier still possesses artistic conceits, utilizing a documentary-style framing device to reveal specifics about his esoteric subjects, permitting his stylistic preoccupations to bend the rules of a self-imposed “vow of chastity.” His theme also boasts the impertinence of an instigator, employing the taboo as a metaphor for Dogme’s tenets and noble motivations.
Yet, these infractions feel arbitrary when surveying the finished product, due, in part, to the sentiment lurking beneath the charade and von Trier’s capacity for self-reproach. Using a commune of pranksters as his avatar, von Trier paints auteurs as sadists and liars, finding insincerity and contempt in their provocations and self-serving code of ethics. Though his protagonists treat the public space as their stage, as opposed to the confines of the arthouse, their manipulations are no less sinister, exploiting societal mores for pleasure and money at the expense of human suffering.
“The Idiots” primary mode of expression is “spassing”: an act that entails bellowing like a petulant child, contorting palms and fingers into palsied fists and pounding feverishly at pulsating temples. Von Trier realizes the crudity inherent in this symbol and harnesses its negative energy for many fraught moments, chiefly an awkward restroom vignette where a biker is persuaded to steady the urinating penis of a purportedly disabled teenager.
Each viewer is permitted to determine the comedic value of these performances and von Trier has positioned Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), his nearly silent lead, as their representative and objective witness. Her permissiveness, despite trepidations about offending the masses, reflects the complicity of the audience, exposing the innate voyeurism of filmic art and immorality of unbiased spectatorship.
Thankfully, the man behind the camera has not freed himself from blame and von Trier’s acts of self-deprecation are far more scathing in their frankness. Stoffer (Jens Albinus) embodies his headstrong temperament and exhibitionist spirit, obscuring a prurient nature beneath a thick haze of rhetoric and bravado. Though he chides bourgeois lifestyles and unearned wealth, he possesses both and survives on a charlatan’s living of confidence scams and familial goodwill. Each act of liberation in his name ultimately denies reality and his desire for control and superiority culminates in a cruel impulse to film and ridicule a party of handicapped visitors.
As penance for his corresponding trespasses, Lars von Trier transforms a vulgar stunt into an act of sacrifice. Appointing Karen as his proxy, he parades her before her estranged family, allowing the misery of a departed son to spring forth in a cathartic “spass.” His camera exalts her and the cinema to sainthood, aligning the blood and wine streaming down her worn face to Christ’s wounds from the crown of thorns, regarding dramatic torment as the purest reflection of actual sorrow.
The Idiots (October Films, 1998)
Written, Directed and Photographed by Lars von Trier