Lars von Trier’s vulgar Dogme comedy The Idiots (1998), now remastered in 4K, remains one of his most controversial films.
The phrase ‘this x wouldn’t be made today’ is thrown around a lot, and it makes sense. Whether it be sexist archetypes, racial stereotypes, glorification of smoking, or whatever, the Zeitgeist can change pretty quickly, and it’s surprising that a film with such a seemingly distasteful premise is only 25 years old. What is that premise? The Idiots (Idioterne) is about a bored band of friends in need of stimulation and catharsis. They decide that the best way to achieve this is through pretending to be developmentally challenged – in their words, ‘spassing’. Naturally, it’s not difficult to see why this film drew so much ire. As everyone gets more deeply engrossed in their games, their inhibitions begin to genuinely loosen and problems start to arise.
Dogme 95 was a movement started by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, wherein filmmakers were challenged to make a film in line with 10 conservative rules, including handheld shooting only, rejecting genre and forbidding non-diegetic music. In 1998-2005, 35 Dogme films were released, the most famous two being each founder’s contribution: Idioterne (von Trier) and Festen (Vinterberg). As such, the rules exist to cultivate naturalistic filmmaking that focuses on performances and realistic storylines.
What von Trier is doing here is very interesting. When the characters are ‘spassing’, they may not realise it, but they are voluntarily re-drawing boundaries of consent. If they are perceived to be disabled, they will be treated with delicacy and deference, but the minute anyone catches on to their game, they will be subject to contempt for trivialising the difficulties of others, and using them to gain attention. Additionally, as statistically speaking, most viewers are not going to be suffering from developmental difficulties, von Trier is inviting viewers to be offended on behalf of others. Of course, this is usually a good way of signalling empathy, but I get the feeling von Trier is trying to criticise how performative this can be.
The issue of consent is raised most prominently when one ‘idiot’, socialising with a group of men at a pub, goes to the toilet. Feeling sorry for him, one of the guys asks him if he needs any help, and he responds with ‘yes’. The man finds himself holding the ‘idiot’’s penis, to help him urinate. The ‘idiot’ takes advantage of another person’s good will, and is effectively sexually assaulting him by deceiving him, even if doesn’t overtly display any sexual pleasure. Elsewhere in the film, however, there is a lot of sex, and it’s very explicit – it’s simply another form of release for the idiots.
All three films in von Trier’s ‘Golden Heart’ trilogy (the other two being Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark) focus on a woman with apparently undying, unconditional love, but that’s not all that they have in common. They each depict disability; in Breaking the Waves, Jan is paraplegic and Bess is, in her sister-in-law’s words, ‘stupid’, and in Dancer in the Dark Selma has a condition that will lead to her losing her eyesight. The Idiots is unique in that none of the main characters are actually disabled, yet von Trier asks questions about society’s treatment of disabled people and depicts a commune who are united by their weirdness. Is he the bad guy for depicting this, or are we the bad guys for being so intrigued by the idea and wanting to watch on?
While there’s still charm in a poor-quality video stream or an early 2000s Tartan DVD, I’d suggest you catch The Idiots while it’s back in cinemas, so you can revel in your fellow cinemagoers’ groans and cringes. Like most of von Trier’s films, beneath the ugliness there is heart and compassion, so if you can get past the hideous aesthetic, you’ll be rewarded.
The idiots is being screened by Curzon as part of their Enduring Provocations: The Films of Lars Von Trier retrospective. The film is also now available to watch on digital and on demand. Watch The Idiots!