Monday, 27 July 2015

The Idiots - Lars von Trier - 1998

The second film to officially adopt the principals of the Dogme 95 movement – eschewing all technical gimmickry to make films purely on locations with natural light – Lars von Trier’s The Idiots follows a group of residents from a private mental home to challenge social perceptions of the mentally ill and those who are do not conform to the norm. Von Trier follows the group both at home and on various excursions in a succession of scenarios – selling homemade Christmas decorations, welcoming possible new neighbours – which are often cringingly awkward as the wealthy middle-class react crassly or patronisingly towards the group but make very pertinent points about societies' prejudices against the mentally disabled, simply by adopting a handheld documentary approach to observe the characters without utilising narration to enforce a particular opinion from the audience. What makes the film uncomfortable to watch though is that the group are not ill at all but simply pretending, taking it in turns to act as carer whilst the others go out and ‘spass’ in public in order to find their inner idiot. Under the loose leadership of the volatile Stoffer (Jens Albinus) the group’s motivation remains unclear making the antics the audience are forced to watch difficult at best and offensive at worst. Its clear that there are important points to be made here but in choosing to raise them through a group of people pretending to be mentally ill, it often feels as if von Trier is simply mocking them, leaving a nasty taste in the mouth for audience’s unprepared for the film’s many excesses. Von Trier is not so foolish though as to just try and offend people without cause. Introducing the group through the lonely Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) who stumbles into their closeted world and finds refuge there, the camera spends as much time observing the characters bickering in their squat as it does watching them ‘spassing’, in public and the gradual revelations about their own insecurities do not justify their actions but at least help make some sense of the them. Stoffer gets angry about wealthy middle-class attitudes but has no direction and purpose beyond vaguely proving a point. He is happy to use the group’s apparent disability to attack local officials but also as an excuse to indulge in some eye-wateringly graphic group sex. Others are there simply to have fun or to escape mundane jobs whilst Karen herself has a tragic secret that eventually clashes with Stoffer’s demands to devastating effect. Deliberately never painting ideas and motivations in black and white, The Idiots perhaps suggests that everyone is a little different or troubled on a level deeper than labels like ‘spastic’ or ‘idiot’ and so although the film is incredibly uncomfortable viewing there maybe a point to be made for anyone who can withhold judgement.

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