“You know what? You’d better take this seriously…” - The Idiots (1998)

There are some artists whose public forthrightness is so unrestricted that the distinctions between the figure, their opinions and their art become hazy. Their personality becomes such a part of their broadcast image that it ends up being difficult to think of the work they produce without focusing on the artist themselves.

Lars von Trier is no stranger to controversy. He’s been an outspoken figure in the international film industry, sometimes inappropriately so, since he emerged on the scene in 1984 with The Element of Crime. More recently, his misguided comments about being a Nazi sympathiser at Cannes in 2011 resulted in a life ban from the legendary festival. Every frame of Von Trier’s films is saturated with his personality, his recklessness and his eagerness to shock.

Von Trier doesn’t hold back on his partiality for shocking for the sake of shocking in his 1998 film The Idiots. The film, which conforms to the 95 Dogme Manifesto that Von Trier himself helped form, centres around a group of people that fake mental illness in their spare time. It’s never made clear exactly why they do this although a couple of them, including unofficial leader Stoffer (Jens Albinus) seem to think that their ‘spassing’ makes comment on the general discomfort we feel about the mentally ill.

Dogme 95 was developed in 1995 by Von Trier and fellow Dane Thomas Vinterberg and immediately achieved international interest due to its accessibility. Von Trier and Vinterberg’s manifesto, apparently written in under 45 minutes, pushed away from the expensive process that filmmaking so often becomes. It offered unknown filmmakers the chance to produce internationally recognized work without the backing of huge budgets. The films are rough around the edges, particularly visually so, but the roughness was the whole idea; stripping back filmmaking to its bare necessities. There were a number of specific rules and guidelines, referred to as the ‘Vow of Chastity’ that Dogme filmmakers had to conform to.

  1. Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic.
  3. The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.
  4. The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable (if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur).
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.

The Idiots actually breaks a number of these rules, but then so do most of the films associated with the movement. Von Trier has been outspoken about his belief that Italian for Beginners (2000) was not a true Dogme film as it followed generic romantic comedy conventions and favoured resolution over ambiguity. It could be argued that rules are not even conducive to successful filmmaking, usually such an uninhibited art form. Both Von Trier and fellow Dogme founder Vinterberg, director of Festen (1998), moved on from the movement after their initial input, suggesting Dogme was more of an experiment or a passing idea for the two filmmakers.

Unlike Von Trier’s more recent work, such as Melancholia (2011) and Antichrist (2009), The Idiots is not an attractive film. Like all the Dogme films, the camera is handheld and neither the image nor location (for the most part) have been manipulated. But the film is unattractive for more reasons than the image. The feeling of uneasiness about the actions of the group of ‘spassers’ is unshakeable. We sense a valuable topic being addressed but without the clarity it ought to have. The problem stems from both Von Trier’s and the characters’ uncertainty of purpose. Such an interesting scenario and intriguing topic deserve more thought than Von Trier seems to have invested and the film is cheapened as a result.

We are introduced to the group of spassers through Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), who seems an outsider even amongst these extreme outsiders. Easily impressed and seemingly thick, she’s naturally attracted to this group of misfits that she adopts as a ‘family’. Karen represents both the high and low of their group, voicing questions about the cruelty of spassing but not giving much thought as to the why when she gives it a try herself.

There are powerful scenes. A young woman interested in buying the house in which they have set up camp is frightened off by their lie that there is an institution down the road. The scenes dealing with the group’s general confusion as to their motives also work well. When Susanne (Anne Louise Hassing) invites a group of genuinely mentally ill people to visit, the ‘spassers’ either condescend or retreat angrily. The ugliness of their own actions has been exposed.

One scene in particular has attracted a large amount of criticism. The birthday party orgy towards the end of the film depicts unsimulated sex, something Von Trier would repeat in Antichrist. Showing real sex is something that will probably always be problematic in cinema. On one hand, filmmakers need to have the freedom to produce the images they feel will best serve the film. On the other it’s a fine line before the image just feels like porn. Violence in film raises similar issues. When the same effect can be achieved without showing real sexual penetration or graphic violence, is showing it even necessary?

It’s Von Trier’s confusion as to what to do with this powerful material that ultimately gives the film an unpleasant tone. The subject of the film is intriguing enough that it deserves a bit of definition. There is something nice about the roughness of the Dogme 95 films. They are written and produced in such a short amount of time that they almost come across as cinematic storytelling at its most fundamental. The problem with The Idiots is perhaps that Dogme 95 does not serve it justly. The subject deserves more thought and care than the Manifesto allows it. Ultimately we’re left wondering whether the real idiots are the characters, the mentally ill, Von Trier or even us. But then, maybe that’s the point.