It's one thing to know in your own ego that you're an intrepid cinematic genius. It's quite another thing to be so cocky that you leave flubbed shots in your movie and call it art.
That's the line that the brilliant Lars von Trier crosses more than once in "The Idiots" -- a sometimes tense and engrossing, other times dull as dishwater drama-comedy about a misanthropic clique of societal escapees who pretend to be mentally retarded as a way to release stress.
The reclusive wunderkind Danish director of emotionally ravaging films like "Zentropa" and "Breaking the Waves," and off-kilter dark comedies like "The Kingdom," von Trier is also the ad hoc leader of a Danish experimental directors' collective called Dogme 95, which espouses ultra-minimalist filmmaking. Dogme movies such as "Mifune," "The Celebration" and "julien donkey-boy" abide by monastic rules that, in the name of realism, include forbidding the use of extra lighting or sound and insisting all filming be done on location with hand-held cameras.
"The Idiots" is von Trier's Dogme 95 contribution -- a raw, absorbing, bizarre fable that takes us inside this band of yuppie misfits through the sad, tentative eyes of Karen (Bodil Jorgensen) a psychologically wounded newcomer, assimilated during one of the group's public outings in which they "spass," pretending to be from a home for the mentally handicapped.
A quiet, conservative woman in her 40s, Karen's heartbreaking motive for clinging to the Idiots (as they call themselves) is a secret von Trier holds on to as a carrot to lure the audience through the story, which finds the once blissful group beginning to disintegrate into temper tantrums and personality clashes.
The flash point for these problems is Stoffer (Jens Albinus), a belligerent man, angry at the world, who can't quite connect with the strangely freeing sensation the rest of the circle gets from their spass sessions. So he begins belittling them and daring them to take their eccentricities public by having fits at work or at home -- a safe challenge for Stoffer, who has no job and no family to speak of.
The story is narrated by interviews with the Idiots (other members include a man hiding from the stresses of fatherhood, an unhappy advertising copywriter and a teenage girl with an overbearing father) -- interviews that clearly take place after the group has disbanded.
Von Trier skillfully guides the audience from initial repugnance (there has been great debate about whether or not this movie belittles the mentally handicapped) through surprising understanding via Karen's journey and the perceivable freedom she feels when she finally lets go her inhibitions and spasses for the first time.
He also has a little fun with the MPAA, which gave this film an NC-17, simply because it contains an excess of casual nudity. Instead of re-editing the film to get an R, he bites his thumb at American prudishness and just slaps black bars over people's naughty bits.
But the writer-director's anti-establishment self-indulgence gets the better of him in this picture. Is he really so full of himself that he thinks scenes with cameramen, boom mikes and crew members lingering in the corners of the frame don't need to be re-shot?
Apparently so, and it's distracting. Especially in a movie that's already deliberately unpolished.
Von Trier's creative, cutting-edge style of shaky cameras and raw multiple angle/multiple take edits is as effectively visceral as it has been in previous films. He hasn't lost his knack for putting his audience psychologically on edge. But "The Idiots" is under-cooked. Aside from Karen, none of these social expatriates are endeared enough to the audience to make this bunch interesting, and without that connection the film feels a bit like the kind of dour, sketchy art house import Mike Myers used to mock on Saturday Night Live as Dieter, the German artistic elitist.
Run time: 117 mins
In Theaters: Friday 17th July 1998
Production compaines: DR TV, ZENTROPA ENTERTAINMENTS2
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Bodil Jørgensen as Karen, Jens Albinus as Stoffer, Anne Louise Hassing as Susanne, Troels Lyby as Henrik, Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Jeppe, Louise Mieritz as Josephine, Henrik Prip as Ped, Luis Mesonero as Miguel, Knud Romer Jørgensen as Axel, Trine Michelsen as Nana, Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis as Katrine, Paprika Steen as High Class Lady, Erik Wedersøe as Stoffer's Uncle Svend, Michael Moritzen as Man from Municipality, Anders Hove as Josephine's Father, Jan Elle as Waiter, Claus Strandberg as Guide at Factory, Jens Jørn Spottag as Boss at Advertising Agency, John Martinus as Man in Morning-Jacket, Lars Bjarke as Rocker #1, Ewald Larsen as Rocker #2, Christian Friis as Rocker #3, Louise B. Clausen as Rocker Girl Linda, Hans Henrik Clemensen as Karen's Husband Anders, Lone Lindorff as Karen's Mother, Erno Müller as Karen's Grandfather, Regitze Estrup as Karen's Sister Louise, Lotte Munk Fure as Karen's Sister Britta, Marina Bouras as Axel's Wife