04 April, 2005

munkey's eye view: DOGMA #2 ~ THE IDIOTS

a bunch of idiots ~ a lot to think about

Few filmmakers divide audiences and critics as diametrically as Danish rabble-rouser Lars Von Trier. His detractors point to his arrogance, his at least exaggerated - if not completely invented - phobias, the artificially inserted "Von" in his name, and his generally smug demeanour, to write him off as a misanthropic, misogynistic hack, taking his personal cynicism out on the cinematic world. Others simply find his determined contradiction of basic film conventions irritating and artless. On the other hand his films are widely regarded as emotionally draining masterpieces - the lack of crafted narratives and disregard for technical polish allowing the raw impact of the characters and their situations to reach the audience with unhindered intensity.

In 1995, Von Trier, along with Thomas Vinterberg and a collection of other rebellious Scandinavian filmmakers, created the Dogme Manifesto: a series of Laws designed to break through cinema's reliance on effects, action and artistic slickness, and tear the art-form down to its roots. Among the laws: no tripods, no sets, no additional lighting or sound, no narrative contrivances such as shootings or explosions, no re-takes to correct technical errors... the focus was to be on the characters and the performances. The first film created under the Manifesto was Vinterberg's Festen. Von Trier had just made the much-lauded Breaking The Waves, creating an international name for himself as a high-octane wunderkind tackling gritty plots and wringing extraordinary performances from his cast. With the international-cinema world eagerly awaiting his next work, he could easily have churned out a glossy, earnest, likeable film and become an art-house darling. Instead, he created Idioterne - "The Idiots".

Set to offend almost everyone on some level, The Idiots revolves around a group who live in an abandoned house in the suburbs of Copenhagen, and go on regular pubilc outings pretending to be mentally handicapped. Complete with a mini-bus and pretend carer, they visit parks, go to cafés, and even take specially organised tours of local industry, all the while very convincingly pretending to be retarded. However the point of the characters' activities, or indeed the film, is never to mock the mentally disabled. Rather, their shenanigans draw attention to the patronising, dismissive way in which mainstream society so often treats handicapped people.

The characters’ exact reasons for their behaviour are somewhat blurred. For some, it seems to be an escape to a hidden world: to find one's "inner idiot" and exist - even just for a short time - as an incapable and thus carefree individual. For others, as the film gradually reveals, it may just be a mask for their true mental problems which - while not rendering them disabled - may be preventing them from living "normal" lives.

The film also deals with the sex-lives of these characters blatantly, even explicitly – this was one of the first general-release films to depict actual sexual penetration and erect penises. At one point, Stoffer - one of the pretend-retards - is taken by his female “carer” into the ladies’ change-room at the local pool, and becomes aroused at the sight of the naked women. They, in turn simply smile at this harmless man – not concerned by him, because they believe he is an “invalid”. This is somewhat confronting not just because of the graphicness, but because it forces the viewer to consider that mentally disabled people are sexual beings, just like the rest of us. Stoffer’s mental disability is a pretence, masking the very real sexuality of a very capable man. However, the undeniable sexuality of genuinely retarded people is also masked every day, a wilful ignorance by “normal” people who find such topics uncomfortable territory.

Adhering to the Dogma ideal, the film is very rough around the edges: the camera-work is amateurish, the sound imperfect. On several occasions, the boom mike or even the secondary cameraman are visible in-shot. However, as the Manifesto dictates, the power of the film is in its extraordinary actors. The entire cast deliver amazingly realistic performances – both while behaving “normally” and when pretending to be handicapped. Special mention must go to Nikolaj Lie Kaas who is nothing short of devastating as Jeppe, particularly when Jeppe’s retard-persona becomes a vehicle for expressing his real, overwhelming emotions.

If you enjoy cinema which not only pushes at the boundaries, but kicks through them drooling, screaming and bleeding, The Idiots is for you. Don’t be fooled by the home-movie aesthetic or the seemingly-peurile humour of the subject matter. This is cinema at it’s most profound: laugh-out-loud funny and punch-you-in-the-guts moving. Lars Von Trier may be an ass, but his cinema certainly has important things to say, and will leave you thinking about its messages long after the credits fade to black.

(out of 5)

Jeppe and Josephine use the fumbling uncertainty of false disability, to express the intense uncertainty of true feeling.




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