Combustible Celluloid Review - The Idiots (1998), Lars von Trier, Lars von Trier, Bodil Jorgensen, Jens Albinus, Louise Hassing, Troels Lyby, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Henrik Prip, Luis Mesonero, Louise Mieritz, Knud Romer Jorgensen, Trine Michelsen, Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis
Combustible Celluloid
With: Bodil Jorgensen, Jens Albinus, Louise Hassing, Troels Lyby, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Henrik Prip, Luis Mesonero, Louise Mieritz, Knud Romer Jorgensen, Trine Michelsen, Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis
Written by: Lars von Trier
Directed by: Lars von Trier
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality and nudity, and for language
Language: Danish with English subtitles
Running Time: 115
Date: 05/20/1998

The Idiots (1998)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Ignorance Is Bliss

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It took two years for Lars von Trier's follow up to Breaking the Waves (1996) to make it to America because it contains a lot of nudity. While every other country in the world wasn't bothered by it, the U.S. censors were apparently driven into quite a snit. Von Trier solved the problem not by cutting his film, but by adding black bars over the "offensive" bits. This is basically the same thing Stanley Kubrick was forced to do last year with Eyes Wide Shut when, again, the U.S. was the only country in the world upset by the nude scenes.

The Idiots is the second of the Danish "Dogma" films. The third Dogma film, Soren Kragh Jacobsen's Mifune, has already opened here, and the first, Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration (1998) is available on home video. "Dogma" is a set of rules agreed upon by the four members of the "brotherhood" to try and change cinema as we know it today. The rules say that the filmmaker can't use artificial lighting (only a small light attached to the camera). Only existing locations may be used and props may not be brought in. Genre films and special effects are not allowed. Films must be in color and shot on film (no video). The camera must be hand-held. Adding sound, sound effects, or music is forbidden. (Music may be recorded live on the shoot.) And finally, the director must not be credited, a rule that is broken in order for the films to be legally distributed. One American Dogma film has been made, Harmony Korine's amazing julien donkey-boy (1999).

Now, that aside, we can finally move on to the The Idiots. Strangely, all the Dogma films I've seen have something to do with mental disabilities, and The Idiots is no exception. This film deals with a group of young people (late twenties to early thirties) who live in a communal house and impersonate mentally retarded people. (They call it "spassing," which I believe is meant to be "spazzing," a small translation glitch on the part of the subtitler.) With the "goal" of finding their "inner idiot" and thus achieving true happiness they go to public places, like pools or restaurants in their "Special Education" truck and put on a show to make people uncomfortable .

Von Trier keeps us in the dark for the first few minutes, as we watch a woman, Karen (Bodil Jorgensen) having lunch in a restaurant. She notices a couple of mentally retarded folks at another table with their guardian, who is having a hard time controlling them. One of them, Stoffer -- short for Christoffer -- (played by Jens Albinus) takes Karen's hand and won't let go. Karen kindly, and humorously, leaves the restaurant with them and even gets in the cab so as to let Stoffer have what he wants. Once away from the restaurant, the act is dropped, and we're just as surprised as Karen is.

The Idiots can be difficult to sit through, especially as it turns slowly from comedy in its first hour to dark drama in its second. But I think it's a worthy experiment, both because of its "Dogma" format and its dramatic inventions. The Idiots is really about something. It shows us characters that we get to know and it has them ask audacious questions and take steps to find the answers, even if there are none. It's a brave film; much braver in fact than the American censors who saw fit to deface it.

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