Following a chance encounter in a local restaurant, a lonely woman named Karen (Jørgensen) meets a group of people known as the ‘idiots’, a collective whose aim is to challenge bourgeois social norms and to expose middle-class pretensions and hypocrisies. The group members undergo a procedure known as ‘spassing’ – in which they mimic the behaviour of mentally disabled people – in order to make contact with their ‘inner idiot’. Although initially resistant to their methods, Karen is increasingly drawn into the idiots’ community, and begins to find an unexpected sense of peace through ‘spassing’. Cracks eventually appear within the group, and several members leave the community after its self-appointed leader Stoffer (Albinus) urges them to take their ‘spassing’ to ever greater extremes. The film’s unsettling ending sheds new light on Karen’s emotional trajectory and brings into focus the distinction between empty posturing and authentically provocative action.
The Idiots is a film that has shocked and polarised audiences ever since its premiere at the Cannes film festival in 1998. From the film’s amateurish camcorder aesthetic and ‘politically incorrect’ premise to director Lars von Trier’s courting of controversy through inflammatory public pronouncements and other publicity stunts, The Idiots embodies the spirit of wilful provocation that has since become synonymous with von Trier’s authorial persona. But the film is also significant for its relation to several other contexts and debates: as the second film to be released with the Dogma 95 certificate, The Idiots reflects on the status of global art cinema at the end of the twentieth century, and opens up new perspectives on debates about cinematic realism. As one of a growing number of art-house films to feature graphic, unsimulated sex, the film is significant for its relation to debates about censorship, and for the issues it raises regarding the ethics of spectatorship in contemporary cinema. In this respect, the film anticipates the trend towards a ‘new extremism’ in European filmmaking, and finds affinities with the work of a range of contemporary European directors, including Michael Haneke, Ulrich Seidl and Catherine Breillat.1 Finally, like the other films in the ‘Gold Heart’ trilogy of which it forms a part, The Idiots also raises important questions about gender representation.
The Idiots has garnered a reputation as one of the most provocative films in recent cinema history. Given the film’s boundary-pushing premise, it is not difficult to see why it should have achieved this status. However, it is equally important to understand how the context of the film’s release contributed to its notoriety. In 1995, von Trier came into prominence as the author of the polemic Dogma 95 manifesto: a provocative series of statements and decrees whose ‘supreme goal’ was to ‘counter the film of illusion’ and to ‘force the truth out of characters and settings’. 2 Dogma directors would submit to a strict ‘Vow of Chastity’: ten rules about how films should be made, with an emphasis on authenticity and aesthetic ‘purity’ over the ‘trickery’ and ‘superficial action’ of popular effects driven cinema.3 As the second film to be released with a Dogma 95 certificate, The Idiots attracted a great deal of early attention as an example of the movement’s aims and aesthetics. For instance, in keeping with Dogma rules, The Idiots uses location settings and is filmed using handheld cameras; it largely eschews the use of props, sets, and special lighting, and the director remains uncredited. The Idiots also ups the ante by including ‘real’ blood, ‘real’ sex, and ‘real’ tears, thus heightening the film’s claims to authenticity, and contributing to the film’s notoriety.4 The Idiots was one of the first mainstream, art-house films to feature unsimulated sex on-screen, anticipating a wave of similarly graphic films by directors such as Catherine Breillat, Patrice Chéreau and Christophe Honoré.5 The inclusion of ‘real’ sex in The Idiots became the subject of much controversy at the Cannes premiere, when British critic Mark Kermode was ejected from the screening after shouting derogatory remarks during the now-infamous ‘gang-bang’ sequence, in which the idiots ‘spass’ while having group sex.6 Despite the inclusion of brief shots of unsimulated sex in this sequence, the film was passed uncut for theatrical release in a number of countries, including the UK, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and was released with censorship bars over body parts in the USA.7 The combined allure of the recently launched Dogma 95 movement, together with the scandal created by the inclusion of graphic sex, helped to establish the film’s reputation as a genuinely provocative viewing experience. However, it is important to note that while The Idiots adheres to some of the Dogma rules, it flagrantly flouts others, such as the use of porn actor stand-ins for the sex scene, and the use of filters in post-production.8 As many commentators have noted, The Idiots should not be seen as a direct embodiment of Dogma rules, so much as a parallel exploration of questions about the ‘inter-relationship of truth, reality and fiction’. 9 According to Caroline Bainbridge, this dialectic between ‘authenticity and artifice’ is at the heart of nearly all of von Trier’s films, which are frequently fuelled by an uneasy tension between heavily ironic game playing, on the one hand, and a quest for unbridled emotional truth on the other.10
These tensions are distilled in a particularly complex fashion in The Idiots, and make for an intensely unsettling viewing experience. On an immediate narrative level, the film calls attention to the uneasy division between sardonic role-playing and authentically provocative action through the device of ‘spassing’. ‘Spassing’ initially appears as an elaborate prank, intended to mock social pretences and to expose hidden prejudices of unwitting members of the public. In early scenes, the fly-onthe-wall style camera observes as group members ‘spass’ in various public locations, including a factory, a swimming pool, and a local bar. These sequences are highly ambiguous, mining a deep sense of discomfort from the situation, whilst generating a dark humour from the complicity between the idiots’ antics and the film’s audience. It is important that at this point in the film, we as spectators are ‘let in’ on the joke; this allows us to laugh along with the idiots, and to find safety in our position as distant observers. However, by the end of the film, the meaning of ‘spassing’ undergoes a transformation, as Karen responds to Stoffer’s challenge to bring ‘spassing’ into her everyday life. While other members of the group fail to live up to this challenge, Karen’s ‘spassing’ becomes a genuine vehicle for provocation when she uses it to confront her family with the pain and alienation that she has been experiencing since the death of her son. In the film’s shocking climax the camera focuses intently as Karen quietly ‘spasses’ in her family’s sitting room, dribbling half-eaten cake and coffee out of the side of her mouth, and arcing her head back slightly. In response, her husband suddenly strikes her across the face. Many critics have commented on the intensity of this sequence and its importance for the film’s project of forcing the truth out of the situation.11 In this scene, Karen brings the shared emotions that her family has tried to suppress to the surface, shattering their reserve, and viscerally rejecting their need for social conformity. This scene also enacts a crucial shift in terms of the way that spectators are positioned. Asbjørn Grønstad notes that one of the reasons why this scene feels so unsettling is ‘its subversive intimacy – the sense that we as spectators have been allowed in, as if by mistake, to see something that we were not supposed to see’. 12 In contrast to the black humour of the earlier ‘spassing’ sequences, the intensity of this scene takes us by surprise, and solicits a very different type of emotional response, in which the safety of our position as distant onlookers is turned against us. Although some viewers accused von Trier of using sadistic tactics – of ‘kicking the audience in the face’ 13 – several critics have insisted on the deeply ethical aspect of the film’s finale. The Idiots has played a major role in recent scholarly debates about ethics and film spectatorship.14 From this point of view, it is important to understand the way that the film stages a series of moral questions for the spectator: How should we react when confronted with difference or disability? Is it ever acceptable to hide behind social scripts and conventions? How should we respond to the suffering of others? How does a society negotiate moral limits concerning depictions of sexuality? Some scholars have argued for the ethical merit of The Idiots because of the way that it refrains from supplying easy answers to such questions, insisting that it is up to spectators to chart these muddy waters for ourselves. Michele Aaron argues that The Idiots is a deeply ethical film because it actively stages ‘the dilemma of implication, and the discomfort of those looking on’. 15
Finally, The Idiots is also noteworthy for its relation to feminist debates in film studies. It is the second film in von Trier’s ‘Gold Heart’ trilogy, which includes Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). With its emphasis on female suffering and sacrifice, this trilogy has fostered much debate around the question of gender representation. Many critics have suggested that the trilogy’s association of femininity with suffering, goodness, and transcendence is highly problematic for feminism, because it reinforces stereotypes of female victimisation and male dominance.16 Others, however, have noted that in evoking such stereotyped images von Trier is drawing attention to, and potentially unmasking, dominant perceptions of femininity in a patriarchal society. Bainbridge notes that the ‘Gold Heart’ trilogy can hence ‘be seen to draw attention to the way femininity often exceeds the boundaries imposed on it by patriarchal systems’. 17 In The Idiots, Karen plays this dual role. On the one hand, her fragility and emotional openness, along with her victimisation, can be seen to shore up ideas about feminine passivity and weakness. Karen also follows Stoffer’s orders, submitting herself to him as the group’s ultimate authority figure. However, her capacity for empathy and her ability to confront her family in such a raw and profound way clearly moves beyond the hollow version of masculine provocation embodied by Stoffer. In this sense, while the film clearly raises problematic issues around gender representation, it can also be read as a critique of the role of women in patriarchal society.18
1. Tanya Horeck and Tina Kendall, ‘Introduction’ in The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2011, pp. 1–17.
2. Lars von Trier in John Rockwell, The Idiots, London, BFI Publishing, 2003, pp. 81–4.
4. Jack Stevenson, The Idiots, London, BFI Publishing, 2002, pp. 121–2.
5. Daniel Hickin in Tanya Horeck and Tina Kendall (eds) The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, p. 117.
6. Mark Kermode, ‘Has Porn Entered Mainstream Cinema for Good?’ The Observer, 4 June 2006. Available at www.guardian.co.uk/film/ 2006/jun/04/features.review (accessed 22 June 2012).
7. Stevenson, p. 131.
8. Ibid., pp. 132–4.
9. Caroline Bainbridge, The Cinema of Lars von Trier: Authenticity and Artifice, London, Wallflower Press, 2007, p. 93.
10.Ibid., p. 87.
11.See Stevenson 2002, Rockwell 2003, Bainbridge 2007, Aaron 2007, and Grønstad 2012. 12.Asbjørn Grønstad, Screening the Unwatchable: Spaces of Negation in Post-Millennial Art Cinema, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, p. 17.
13.Stevenson, p. 131.
14.See especially Michele Aaron 2007, Caroline Bainbridge 2007, and Horeck and Kendall 2011.
15.Michele Aaron, Spectatorship: The Power of Looking On, London, Wallflower, 2007, p. 104. 16.Linda Badley, Lars von Trier, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010, p. 70.
17.Bainbridge, p. 138.
18.Badley, p. 69.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Denmark, Spain, Sweden, France, Netherlands and Italy. Production Company: Zentropa Entertainments. Director: Lars von Trier. Producer: Peter Aalbæk Jensen. Screenwriter: Lars von Trier. Cinematographer: Lars von Trier. Music: Kim Kristensen. Editor: Molly Marlene Stensgaard. Cast: Bodil Jørgensen (Karen), Jens Albinus (Stoffer), Anne Louise Hassing (Susanne).]
Stig Björkman (ed.), Trier on von Trier, London, Faber and Faber, 2003.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.