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The Idiots (1998) Movie: Controversial for the Wrong Reasons

The Idiots movie Lars von TrierThe Idiots movie: Lars von Trier’s second “Golden Hearts Trilogy” release, sandwiched between two (mostly) English-language entries: Breaking the Waves (1996), starring Emily Watson, and Dancer in the Dark (2000), starring Björk and Catherine Deneuve.
  • The Idiots (1998) movie review: Deemed controversial in some quarters due to its central premise – a group of people pretending to be mentally handicapped – and its explicit orgy sequence, this Lars von Trier “comedy” is indeed disturbing. But for very different reasons.

The Idiots movie review: Unsettling Lars von Trier ‘comedy’ shows you can’t free yourself from social constraints

The tenth and final “Vow of Chastity” from the Dogme 95 Manifesto states that “the director must not be credited.” That’s because the films are made in a collective fashion and the manifesto recognizes how important each hand is to the birth of one film. That being said, Lars von Trier is the “director” of The Idiots / Idioterne, even if the credits maintain that it was made by a group.

The DVD I watched (Region 2, Tartan Video) didn’t have many extras, but one interesting feature is a text copy of an interview by Peter Øvig Knudsen in which von Trier discusses his opinions about and methods while working on The Idiots. (The interview is also found online on the Dogme 95 website.)

Knudsen notes that von Trier spent only four days writing the film’s script and never did a rewrite – or even a read-through – after finishing it. This, of course, led the actors and crew to improvise many of the scenes, creating a natural feel and fluidity that are absent from overwritten scripts (Juno, for example).

Von Trier explains that part of the objective of a Dogme film is to lose control – or rather, to share it. That method of filmmaking has in past years been successful – consider the films of John Cassavetes, notably Husbands – for it embraces various sources of creativity that come together to produce one genuine piece of both entertainment and art.

In 1998, von Trier and company joined forces to put that method into practice in their own manner.

Dogme 95 cheating?

Set in a posh neighborhood in Søllerød, in the northern outskirts of Copenhagen, and interspersing confession-style interviews with scenes from the last weeks of the title characters’ time together, The Idiots is the second film in Lars von Trier’s “Golden Hearts Trilogy” – the other two being Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000).

The filmmaking elements follow the Dogme 95 Manifesto: Camera work must be handheld, lighting must be natural to the location (if that’s too much of a problem, a lamp may be placed at the end of the camera), and music is not to be mixed into the film.

Well, one of the first things that is heard in The Idiots is a simple harmonica sound which I immediately jotted down as being against the Dogme 95 rules. My mistake: Reading the Knudsen interview, I learned that von Trier and crew “simply installed the harmonica player where we had scenes with music.”

Now, who are the titular Idiots?

The Idiots movie 1998The Idiots movie: Letting your Inner Idiot loose. Lars von Trier’s “comedy” won three Bodil Awards (a.k.a. the “Danish Oscars”): Best Actress (Bodil Jørgensen), Best Supporting Actor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), and Best Supporting Actress (Anne Louise Hassing).

What makes an idiot an ‘idiot’

The Idiots are a group of adults who for some reason or another are dissatisfied with their lives and, on a grander scale, with society in general.

To offset their discontent they come together in an empty house, owned by the uncle of the group’s leader, to uncover their Inner Idiots. That means they must act in social and private situations as if they were developmentally disabled – a performance dubbed as spassing.

Thus, each character takes on an Idiot persona that is supposed to represent their own inner strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, the leader of the group, Stoffer (Jens Albinus), acts mostly like a playful and happy child. A doctor, Ped (Henrik Prip), places himself in a wheelchair, needing care while behaving with little acknowledgment of his surroundings.

When in public, the group manipulates their acquired social status to their advantage, e.g., getting out of fancy dinners by interrupting the other diners, guilt-tripping rich neighbors into buying flimsily homemade Christmas decorations, and generally taking the piss out of people.

Most of them do not consider their actions malicious. When they go out as a group, for instance, one person becomes the designated Minder, leading them through the potentially problematic social situations.

The eleventh member

Of note, the eleventh and last person to join the Idiots is Karen (the beautifully talented Bodil Jørgensen), who happens to be The Idiots’ de facto lead character.

A powerful, mysterious presence throughout the film, Karen speaks her mind in a soft voice that hints at a dark, desperate woman. Having joined the group on a whim, she stays on because of personal grief.

As the newest member, Karen tries to fit into the group, but she is resistant to the spassing. (No one pushes her; there is never any pressure.) It is thus through her eyes that we see the Idiots’ behavior and their guidelines: Inhibitions that can’t be stifled are what separate the Idiots from the rest.

Antisocial desires vs. social impositions

The Idiots then covers a few weeks of the characters’ lives, as they move through public pools, parks, and bars; fight with the Søllerød District Council; and spass out while eating caviar.

Nothing seems to be too far out for them; anything one wants to do is “a part of their Inner Idiot.”

In one scene, Stoffer is awakened by a fellow member telling him of another spasser who is throwing bricks through the glass windows of the shed.

Stoffer’s reply: “Sheds are bourgeois crap.”

That answer would be suitable, except that there is a visit from Stoffer’s uncle, whose goal is to sell the house they’re living in for free. Stoffer must then quickly drop his doctrine and appeal to one’s bourgeois mentality.

Such tension – a back-and-forth of desires and obligations – happens often. In fact, the Idiots’ behavior is counterbalanced by the interviews conducted after the group has abandoned the idea and each other.

Lars von Trier The Idiots directorLars von Trier: The Idiots director and screenwriter. Von Trier was shortlisted for the Best Screenplay European Film Award.

When does ‘funny’ become ‘insensitive’?

I’ve watched The Idiots a few times, and each time I’ve seen it I react a little differently. Sometimes I feel guilty for laughing, at other times I certain compassion for the Idiots’ cause.

Character development is so thorough that I feel I actually got to know the group members. Indeed, Lars von Trier’s approach is such that the viewer experiences their assorted ups and downs, their moments of loss and frustration. The film may seem lighthearted at first, as it strips away societal behaviors to their simplest forms, but then the sadness of reality creeps in.

After all, as Karen suggests, it does seem that the Idiots are poking fun at people with real handicaps. In one moving sequence, they receive an unexpected visit from a group of individuals who are actually disabled. At that moment, those I had been laughing at for an hour or so struggle to cope with the encounter; they immediately stop putting on their act and embrace the visitors.

I found it difficult to sit through these scenes. I felt compelled to ask myself why I had been laughing until then and how I felt about people imitating other people who are developmentally handicapped.

Unavoidable struggles

The Idiots is thus a paradox of a film and should be viewed with that in mind.

Both the characters and the filmmakers set out to lose control, but there are always new boundaries and new windows that will eventually have to be smashed.

Here’s one example: Whenever Stoffer is challenged about the meaning of their behavior, he replies that in order to combat a “society that gets richer not happier” one has to become an Idiot and that “being an Idiot is a luxury.” The group believes that by triggering their Inner Idiot they’ll become enlightened and as a result be able to live an easier, more honest life.

Yet as they get deeper into their project it becomes clear that the same social conventions are still with them. Greed, love, lust, competition, the need for acceptance – all of these struggles are unavoidable.

No escape

The Idiots has had its share of controversy: The subject matter is seen as taboo and the film features a spassed-out, sexually explicit orgy – elements that tend to make some people uneasy.

In my opinion, however, these things are not what gets audiences riled up.

More personal to each viewer is the way they handle their emotional responses to seeing grown adults behave without inhibitions or concern for the consequences of their acts. Whether that incites laughter or sadness, many will feel a discomfort because they’ll be incapable of justifying their reactions.

Expecting nothing but truth, The Idiots puts its audience in a that position and holds them there until the last frame. Viewers thus become a part of the filmmaking process, joining the cast in spassing out. The Minder is the camera, the few glimpses of a microphone, or another cameraperson.

At its core, The Idiots is about sadness, compassion, desperation. There are many humorous moments and sweet relationships, but ultimately the film shines a light on our inability to change, to lose control, and to delve deeper into ourselves.

In sum, we will always be blocked to some degree by our own inhibitions, whatever they may be.

The Idiots / Idioterne (1998)

Direction & Screenplay: Lars von Trier.

Cast: Bodil Jørgensen. Jens Albinus. Anne Louise Hassing. Troels Lyby. Nikolaj Lie Kaas. Louise Mieritz. Henrik Prip. Luis Mesonero. Knud Romer Jørgensen. Paprika Steen. Jens Jørn Spottag.
Voice: Lars von Trier.

The Idiots (1998) Movie: Controversial for the Wrong Reasons” review text © Keith Waterfield; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.


The Idiots (1998) Movie Review” endnotes

In addition to its three Bodil Award wins, The Idiots was also nominated for Best Film.

Lars von Trier and The Idiots movie cast images: Zentropa Entertainments.

The Idiots (1998) Movie: Controversial for the Wrong Reasons” last updated in October 2021.

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