Director: Lars von Trier
Production: Zentropa Entertainments and Liberator Productions; color; running time: 117 min. Released 17 July 1998, Copenhagen. Cost: DKK 12 mio.
Producer: Vibeke Windeløv; screenplay: Lars von Trier; photography: Lars von Trier; editor: Molly Malene Stensgaard; assistant director and photography: Kristoffer Nyholm, Jesper Jargil, Casper Holm; set designer: Lene Nielsen.
Cast: Bodil Jørgensen ( Karen ); Jens Albinus ( Stoffer ); Louise Hassing ( Susanne ); Troels Lyby ( Henrik ); Nikolaj Lie Kaas ( Jeppe ); Henrik Prip ( Ped ); Luis Mesonero ( Miguel ); Louise Mieritz ( Josephine ); Knud Romer Jørgensen ( Axel ); Trine Michelsen ( Nana ); Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis ( Katrine ).
Awards: FIPRESCI International Critics Award, London Film Festival, 1998.
Von Trier, Lars, and Mogens Rukow, Idioterne , Gyldendal, 1999.
Skotte, Kim, "Triers gruppeknald," in Politiken , 17 July 1998.
Piil, Morten, article in Gyldendals filmguide: Danske film fra A til Z , Gyldendal, 1998.
Brooks, Xan, "Burn, Baby, Burn," in Sight and Sound (London), May 1999.
Schepelern, Peter, "Filmen ifølge dogme," in FILM , no. 1, Danish Film Institute, 1999.
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When the Dogma 95 manifesto was presented, the general view in Denmark was that Lars von Trier was primarily responsible for it. In all his films and projects he has worked with sets of rules, and now there were some new ones that in addition to saluting the nouvelle vague of French cinema in the 1960s might also have been inspired by the fact that in Breaking the Waves (1996) von Trier had just completed his biggest, most expensive production, and needed a change. It was all seen as rather a joke, but the presentation at Cannes 1998 of Thomas Vinterberg's Festen and Lars von Trier's Idioterne showed that they meant it seriously.
Whereas Vinterberg's film could have been a grand, polished production and even as a Dogma film is an aesthetic pleasure, von Trier's film is a radical breach with ordinary aesthetic rules for film as an idiom and narrative, and is an equally radical breach with the norms and conventions for film content. In this way, too, the film has its roots in the new wave of French film in the 1960s as well as the alternative ways of life and the showdown with middle-class conventions of the same period. In those days people freaked out; in Trier's hands the characters play a game in which they act the idiot, for the film seems to have the romantic notion that it is only via children and idiots that we can access our authenticity, our primitive character. At the same time the film is also a criticism of those who only regard the game as a playful opportunity for a few intense summer months, while the character with genuine pain in her past carries the game into her real life and is left as the only person to truly accept its radical qualities.
This person is Karen. She starts the film by meeting the "idiots" at a restaurant and is indignant when she finds out their behavior is just a game. But she joins the group and in a beautiful scene in the middle of the film she manages to shed her reservations and allow her "inner idiot" to speak out. The film has three layers, each getting darker and darker.
The first part of the film seems to be a game with reality, where a drink at a pub, a tour of a factory, and outings to a swimming pool and a woods provide opportunities to play the idiot in an open, anonymous social space. The second layer brings the characters closer to home, and the film becomes more painful and simultaneously grotesquely funny when the idiots confront specific individuals: good citizens who are forced to buy hopeless Christmas decorations, potential buyers of the house where the idiots hang out, the civil servant who wants to send them out of his wealthy municipality to one crowded with dysfunctional losers, and not least, the group of bikers who believe that the idiots are genuine, an illusion that must be preserved at all costs.
After these encounters the film becomes even darker in tone and perspective, for the third layer concentrates on the group itself. The costs of this serious game are revealed. When a father comes to get his daughter and breaks up a tender, burgeoning love affair the young couple's desperate farewell through a car windscreen becomes one of the emotional peaks and a distillation of the opposition between the efforts of the idiots and the reactions of the people around them. The moving climax is reached when it turns out that Karen, whose moral qualms have made her take longer than anyone else to accept the idiot game, proves to be the only one capable of playing the idiot among people she knows and loves. In the closing scene, when Karen is in the bosom of her family, for whom concealing problems is the abiding principle, and she begins to play the idiot, one loses all one's reservations about the film and its intent, and surrenders completely. Karen plays the idiot to reconcile herself with her traumatic pain over her dead baby and to get through to her lower-middle-class, convention-ridden family, for whom attendance at the funeral is the only conceivable way to express your grief.
With her reservations regarding the grotesque game of "idiot," which she and many viewers find offensive, Karen becomes the figure the viewer identifies with and her pain, a pain we feel and understand. She comes into the group as a solitary figure and by the end is the only person left who is capable of carrying out the game in her own real life. She is a searching sister to Bess of Breaking the Waves , a woman who gives up everything, sheds her inhibitions, and shatters prejudices.
Von Trier tells his story using a hand-held camera and a radically anti-aesthetic idiom in which the scenes do not seem composed but resemble roughly-hewn fragments of a film not completed. This is emphasised by the meta-layer of the film in which von Trier interviews the idiots and they talk about their experiences, emotions, and attitudes to the group as if with hindsight after the group has split up. This lends the project the character of an improvised experiment that von Trier has been following, and the film assumes the character of an uncontrolled film, an anarchic experiment, or a home movie which failed. But the project has been controlled down to the tiniest detail, and is just as formally implemented as his earlier films. One might say that von Trier is playing the idiot with the language of film, and that just as the group breaches the conventions of middle-class society, he breaches the linguistic conventions of cinema in his own quest for authenticity.