The Idiots Review

Provocative or just offensive? You decide with The Idiots, a love-it-or-hate-it black comedy made according to the rules of Dogme 95. Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 2 release, a generally good DVD release from Tartan.

In present-day Denmark, a commune of young men and women led by Stoffer (Jens Albinus) play-act being mentally disabled in public, a process they call “spassing”. A quiet young woman, Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), who turns out to have problems of her own, is the newest recruit. But soon fissures begin to appear in the group…

Dogme 95 made an impact on world cinema when the first two films made under its Vow of Chastity, Festen and The Idiots played in competition at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. The full Dogme Manifesto is helpfully included on this DVD as an extra (or you can visit the official website), but in short it advocated a back-to-basics approach to film-making, with real locations, direct sound, handheld cameras, no music unless it is actually played within a scene, and the director uncredited. Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, the director of the third Dogme film Mifune, described it as “unplugged filmmaking”. There was always an element of publicity stunt behind Dogme, with some of the films made under its precepts given more attention than they might otherwise have had. But at its best, a set of self-imposed rules can act as a stimulus to creativity, like a poet setting out to write a sonnet or a sestina say. Dogme would be nothing if it didn’t produce some very good, distinctive films, and with Festen and The Idiots it certainly did that.

Lars Von Trier began his career with technically and visually impressive though rather cold films like Europa (in America, Zentropa) and his very tedious debut The Element of Crime. With his TV serial The Kingdom and Breaking the Waves underwent one of the most thorough artistic self-reinventions of modern times, using a handheld camera style where ragged cuts and askew compositions mattered less than very raw, often uncomfortable emotion. The Idiots (whose onscreen title is Dogma 2: “The Idiots”, or in Danish Idioterne) continued this process. Written in four days and filmed with a handheld digital-video camera, it’s a black comedy that is hilarious and deeply uncomfortable at the same time, that’s certainly not for the prudish or the easily offended. Some critics have claimed that it makes fun of the disabled, though that is to miss the point: in one scene real disabled people appear and they are in no way equated with the “spassers”. The scene which caused censorship difficulties in many countries (cuts in Australia, a delayed release in the USA and an outright ban in Ireland) shows a party which leads into group sex, during which Von Trier shows erections and penetration. (There is also a close-up of an erection earlier in a scene set in a swimming pool changing room, not to mention copious nudity of both sexes.) However, and wisely, the BBFC passed all this uncut. The orgy scene is important, as it marks a turning point in the group, where real emotional damage begins to surface. Stoffer runs his commune like a religious cult, demanding total commitment to “spassing”, but ultimately this is too far for many of his followers to go. Von Trier shoots all this documentary style, with “interviews” with the main characters, and all manner of technical flubs (boom mikes in shot, cameras reflected in surfaces) left in, possibly as not-entirely-successful alienation effects.

Given the film’s video origins, you can’t expect a state-of-the-art DVD transfer, and you don’t get it. As you might expect, the picture tends towards the bright and harsh and contrasty, with lines often visible. However, it’s an accurate record of what you would have seen in the cinema, except for one thing – it’s in the wrong aspect ratio. As Item 9 of the Vow of Chastity states that the film is to be in Academy Ratio (4:3 or, to be pedantic, 1.37:1) it seems perverse to transfer it in 1.66:1. This does result in some noticeable cropping, though given the handheld camerawork it was never the most precisely composed film in the first place. To make matters worse, the trailer is in the correct ratio. The sound is basic stereo, well recorded but nothing spectacular – an elaborate sound mix would be in defiance of Dogme principles in any case. There are twelve chapter stops, which is miserly for a film not far short of two hours. Although the packaging says “Region 0” this DVD is in fact encoded for Region 2 only.

Apart from the trailer and the Manifesto, the extras include filmographies of the three lead actors and an informative biography and complete filmography of Von Trier. The stills gallery is the usual ten rather small pictures. The interview with Von Trier is laid out in separate pages (instead of the infuriating rolling text in some of Tartan’s other releases), though with small blue wording on a greeny-brown background it could be easier to read. Finally, there are a set of rather jokey character analyses of the main participants.

No doubt many will hate The Idiots, but you certainly can’t ignore it. Tartan’s DVDs are improving all the time and on the whole this is a useful record of one of the more controversial films of recent times.


Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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