Never one to deal in the commonplace, Lars von Trier cooks up perhaps his most eccentric offering yet, exploring notions of normalcy, constraining behavioral codes and conditioned emotional responses in “The Idiots.” This unclassifiable drama with frequent comic overtones centers on a commune whose residents shrug off middle-class apathy by nurturing their “inner idiot.” Somewhat ambling at times, the film nonetheless is studded with moments of the kind of dramatic intensity audiences have come to expect from the Danish iconoclast. But while his name will ensure the release is seen in most territories, the obscure central thesis and raw approach likely will confine it to the extreme high end of the arthouse market.
“The Idiots” and Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration” represent the first fruits of Dogma 95, a collective of four Danish filmmakers formed three years ago to liberate film from the constraints of technical concerns and superficial action and return it to a purer, more truthful plane. But despite the credo’s calling for directorial humility, the stylistic kinship between the two films premiering in the Cannes competition and von Trier’s work of recent years — the two “The Kingdom” series, “Breaking the Waves” — hint that it could perhaps be interpreted as “no style except my style.”
That style is even more stripped-back here than in Vinterberg’s film or von Trier’s previous work: The anarchic, hand-held camerawork is a little more fluid and unobtrusive, and the editing simpler and less jerky. While the film is not exactly non-narrative, aspects like its extensive use of improvisation, talking-head interviews and frequently visible sound equipment, and Dogma tenets such as the eschewing of artificial lighting and soundtrack make it feel closer to documentary than, say, “The Celebration.”
Von Trier has touched before on themes of innocence, purity and innate wisdom in the mentally infirm in aspects of Bess in “Breaking the Waves” and the Down’s syndrome-afflicted kitchen hands in “The Kingdom.” Here, he goes much further, with a group of people — not unlike a religious sect — who refer to their lapses into generally unacceptable behavior as “spassing.” This they practice in and around a house on the green outskirts of Copenhagen, which one of their number, Stoffer (Jens Albinus), is meant to be selling for his uncle, or in the near vicinity.
The director’s game-playing is at its most mischievous in the opening stretch. Two guys unnerve the waiter and patrons of a classy restaurant to avoid the check. During the charade, Stoffer becomes attached to lost-looking, lone diner Karen (Bodil Jorgensen, who vaguely resembles Emily Watson). Karen casually drifts into the group and, despite her aura of sadness, soon begins to appreciate the therapeutic release of their games.
The prankish side of the experiment is amusingly illustrated in scenes such as a factory tour, a pool visit and an encounter with some tattooed bikers. One of the most daring scenes — and one that will surely present censorship problems in many countries — is a nude frolic thatoccurs place during a party for Stoffer. The announcement of his birthday wish for a “gang bang” causes all inhibitions to be shed by both the cast and von Trier, who cheekily busts taboos by showing erect penises and actual penetration.
The group’s more serious aims are discussed direct to camera, with members by turns congratulating and confronting one another about their success or failure in overcoming barriers. Issues of prejudice are sharply addressed when a prospective buyer (Paprika Steen, from “The Celebration”) comes to look at the property and is scared off, or when a council official offers a hefty grant to help the group re-establish elsewhere.
Pic’s midsection lacks focus and seems to be going nowhere until intrusions from outside begin to shake things up. First Axel (Knud Romer Jorgensen), an advertising exec and family man, feels the threat of exposure. Then Josephine (Louise Mieritz) is all but hauled away by her father, revealing a history of mental illness. As the group’s unity becomes more compromised, Stoffer issues a challenge to take their idiot personae into their everyday lives. When other members refuse, Karen accepts, returning home in a powerfully played final scene to reveal the family tragedy that sent her running.
Whether von Trier is a prankster or a visionary is open to debate, but “The Idiots” — which he wrote in four days — is a disturbing, provocative film that at the very least provides further proof he is a true original playing strictly by his own rules.