In one scene in The Idiots, the leader of a group of people who have decided to take time out to find their inner idiot says that in the stone age people who were physically or mentally deemed deficient would be dead. But now Stoffer (Jens Albinus) believes that they are the future without quite explaining why. But perhaps it rests on the group's formulation of what an idiot happens to be: someone who can act out their feelings without much respect for the societal norms that constrain many. It isn't just that reason demands we think a certain way, but allied to it is the social which expects us to conform to codes of behaviour as well. A properly healthy society may just be one that allows the inner idiot out whenever it feels the need rather whenever it might be deemed appropriate.
However, though Stoffer happens to be the man in charge and the instigator of many of the group's social pranks, he also might appear to be the man least capable of letting go of his emotions. He is the leader in fact for quite socially conventional reasons - they are all staying at his uncle's place: a house he has trusted Stoffer to sell. How long the various people have been staying for isn't easy to discern but the film's diegesis covers a fortnight, from the moment Karen joins them to the moment the group dissolves after a couple of its members cannot put into practice 'spassing' in work or familial environments. It is a challenge Stoffer throws down as they spin the bottle and find out who will be the first to try and allow their inner idiot out in an environment where there will be something at stake. It doesn't stop at Stoffer but if we believe Stoffer is more capable than any of the others at transgressing norms, he could also be the one furthest away from any of them at expressing feeling.
it is here where Lars von Trier's films is at its most imaginative as he wonders whether this inner idiot is anarchic or cathartic, reacting to social expectation provocatively, or capable of revealing an emotion that comes from the full force of one's self. Stoffer is undeniably a provocateur as he makes a scene at an upmarket restaurant, gets washed down in the ladies' showers at the swimming pool with an erection, as he strips naked and shouts fascist at a council worker, someone who reckons he can throw Stoffer a bung if he will move out of the area, taking his idiots with him. But it is Karen (Bodil Jorgensen) who would seem capable of cathartic rather than reactive change. When we first see her sitting alone in the restaurant unaware that these strangers are acting out a role, she is the only one coming into contact with them who shows compassion and understanding. These are commonly enough applied terms but very few are able to express them as a feeling of vulnerable equality. While the waiter can barely contain his contempt, and numerous diners tolerate their behaviour, only Karen sees the 'idiots' as her equal. To show understanding is all very well but that can be far removed from compassion. Compassion suggests a mutual comprehension of another's difficulties. Understanding indicates a distance which means while one needn't be unsympathetic there is a clear gap between oneself and the other person.
The Idiots hinges on the question of a proper sense of compassion, as if the idiots are only as good as the fellow feeling they are capable of generating. In this von Trier mainly sees failure, but that doesn't mean he views them as hypocrites. To acknowledge the former is to be realistic about one's hopes but still to contain hope within them. To insist on the latter is to play up the failure for ironic humour. Von Trier would seem to see the validity of the dream but that these 'spassers' overall might not be the best practitioners. Anyone outraged by the conceit isn't really watching the film but taking the temperature of their own outrage, perhaps not an unreasonable response if someone understandably can't get past the idea that the film is a horrendous example of punching down, of mocking those amongst the least fortunate in our society. But this wouldn't be criticism - one's outrage would need to be much more nuanced than that because von Trier's approach recognises the very different ways in which the characters are letting out their inner idiot. Stoffer is generally aggressive and intolerant, while another, a wheelchair occupying doctor Ped (Henrik Prip) often seems lost in his own world, a third, Susanne (Anne Louise Hassing), appears to keep the others on the right side of sensitivity, a fourth Jeppe (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), shows reluctance to become too immersed in the activity, and a fifth, Nana (Trine Michelsen), doesn't stay with the group at all but hangs out with them for a bit of provocation. For around half the group we can talk about a confident need to provoke, but for the other half it invokes in them aspects of bringing forth, and oddly assuaging, other crises. By the end of the film we understand this happens to be most obviously the case with Karen. At the conclusion we find out that her young son has died, that she missed the funeral and ended up hanging out with the ad hoc commune instead. But others are troubled too - one of the group gets dragged away by her father when he arrives and says Josephine (Louise Mieritz) hasn't been taking her medication - he finds it in her room at home. Jeppe looks like he might have hints of instability as well: when her father forces Josephine into the car and they start to drive off Jeppe throws himself on the bonnet. Another, Katrine (Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis), happens to be in love with one of the group who is escaping the strictures of a wife, a child and a marketing job. We might find Axel (Knud Romer) selfish and irresponsible, but Katrine's willingness to stay suggests an obsessive need that overrides her own well-being. When she starts to spass in the swimming pool, what chaos is she accessing in the process?
Yet von Trier, who wrote the script within four days, doesn't seem too interested in psychology and back story, and neither should we be. However, what we can glean from the film is that people happen to be there for a wide range of motives, but what concerns us is dividing them into two main groups: those for whom it is an exercise in provocation and those for whom it is an invitation. For some, it is an escape from bourgeois boredom evident in claims made by Stoffer, Axel and Nana. But for Karen, Josephine and Jeppe, perhaps more subtly for Susanne too, it is an assuaging environment that doesn't demand from them the pressure of expectation. If von Trier's own film is much more than an exercise in provocation, it is that it wants to be a cathartic experience releasing us from the pressure of society, from the pressurised society, and indeed, as we will later explore, from the pressurising assumptions of the aesthetic. One can of course reject these pressures forcefully as Stoffer does, or one can reject them empathically, as Karen and some of the others do. To reject society is still to acknowledge society, to see it as the overriding force in one's existence that must be countered. But to reject it empathically, or compassionately, is to dissolve society in the face of the individuals out of which it is made up. When speaking of the film in Trier on von Trier, the director says that he was having problems with Hassing's performance as Susanne because though she was great at delivering lines and was very relaxed, he didn't think she was accessing feeling enough. "She was supposed to be expressing sympathy. But on every take Anne Louise seemed to be strangely distant and, to my eyes, not really credible. He could see that what he had to do was find in Hassing an imaginative capacity for co-feeling. "You can't show sympathy for something you can't share. Sympathy requires imagination....my starting point was that, if we could get Anne Louise to experience or remember a similar sorrow to the one Karen tells her about in the film, about losing a child, then she would be able to perform the scene in a way that expressed the emotional weight it needed." Von Trier managed to find a way of accessing that feeling which we needn't go into, and while some might regard von Trier's notion of sympathy closer to that of empathy or compassion, the point is that what matters rests on accessing co-feeling with another, rather than just directing anger against society. Von Trier accesses the comedic as rebellion and the tragic as confrontation, determined not so much to wrong-foot the viewer as to find a balance between these two ways in which society can be decompressed.
Von Trier's film from a certain perspective could seem out of its time; that its interest in confronting bourgeois mores had been done so often in the late sixties and the seventies that there wasn't by the late nineties a great deal left to confront. Whether it was Weekend, Sweet Movie, The Phantom of Liberty, Themroc or The Last Woman, numerous filmmakers found ways in which to critique the values and demands placed on people by bourgeois society. But it wasn't as if the problems went away because filmmakers made them so visible and maybe the point isn't that the directors wished to make them go away at all. These were directors coming from very different socio-political positions. Godard, for example, was entering his Maoist phase when he made Weekend, Dusan Makavejev had been influenced strongly W. R. Reich who had married Marxism with Freud in a fascinating sexual melange. Bunuel was always a radical by instinct and a bourgeois by habit, evident in his insistent need to keep to his 'rigid timetable' (Making Waves) even when abroad, according to Mario Vargas Llosa. A revolutionary would need be more flexible than that. But we might wonder if often the need for personalising habit is a means by which to make behaviour one's own as readily as conforming to a particular societal expectation. If the revolutionary wants to change society, the obsessive wants to find within that order his or her own particularity. It can be like a variation of sympathy: that one understands each individual's need to resist the norms as the individualised behaviour depressurises the societal. The obsessive needn't be a conservative but he or she might not be capable of revolution either. To see The Idiots as a puerile attack on bourgeois society is to see the film chiefly through the eyes of the group's ringleader - to see Stoffer's remarks as reflecting everybody else's, and by extension von Trier's. Better to see it as containing two main avenues of expression (the provocative and the compassionate), and see behind that the filmmaker working through the two poles, evident in the questions asked by an offscreen von Trier after the event as he interviews those involved in the group.
It is as though von Trier wanted to return to the problem that preoccupied many in the sixties and seventies, the combination of Marx and Freud, to see not so much how the self could be liberated from society, but first of all how one might be liberated from oneself. A social structure that didn't generate healthy individuals in the first place would just perpetuate the same set of problems soon enough: greed, status, competition and aggression. Whether it was Marcuse or Laing, Deleuze and Guattari, or indeed Reich, much thought went into wondering how a person could access an intricate notion of freedom. Marcuse opens One Dimensional Man, published in 1964, by saying "a comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilisation, a token of technical progress." Deleuze and Guattari noted, in 1972, quoting Reich, "why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation" when they see that "there is only desire and the social, and nothing else." Laing in turn, in 1967, invokes Marcuse. Speaking of the need for one to adapt to society he says: "Adapt to what? To society? To a world gone mad? The family's function is to repress Eros: to induce a false consciousness of security: to deny death by avoiding life: to cut off transcendence: to believe in God, not to experience the Void: to create, in short, one-dimensional man..." (The Politics of Experience) How could a three-dimensional individual be created that would be able to access their desires and find the freedom to revolutionise the self? Von Trier's answer to this rests on the idiotic in the Dostoevskian sense, explored clearly in The Idiot when the writer searches out a decency in Prince Myshkin that might be taken for stupidity. But even more we might think of the idiot in its original definition: Idiotes from the Greek, which means a private person.
The film asks how to do we address the private person within us rather than the public expectations placed upon us? When A. O. Scott in the New York Times amusingly dismisses the film by comparing it to nineties Mentos commercials where a mishap would turn into a success story, where a social rule or situation would be violated or not go according to plan, but would be rescued by ingenuity, he has a point but misses a much bigger one. In the commercials, we see for example an office worker in a nice suit sit on a bench and notices that the paint hasn't yet tried, and then lies down again and manages to turn his plain suit into a pin-striped one. In another, a young man's football ends up in the neighbour's garden while they are in the middle of an upmarket wedding. He grabs some flowers nearby, hands them to the bride in a moment of nonchalance and retrieves his ball. But this is the societally awkward moment smoothly redeemed and nothing in the Mentos commercials would seem out of place in any number of other adverts that insist on such a high price when it comes to looking good in the eyes of others. The people in them are, in etymological terms, very far from looking like an idiot.
Yet how many of the idiots, in this sense, manage to achieve the idiotic? It is partly why we have differentiated the societally reactive from the personally reflective, from those who want to fight against the norms but don't seem especially to possesses either compassion or a singular subjectivity, and those who are compassionate and capable of reflection. When Stoffer talks about people letting out their inner idiot, Karen says 'but there are people who are really ill... it is sad for people who are not able like us. How can...how can you justify acting the idiot." Stoffer replies: "you can't" Yet by the end of the film Karen will be able to justify letting out her inner idiot as we might see Stoffer's response as reflecting his own lack of motive which Karen's question seems to be seeking. As she speaks to Stoffer she doesn't appear to be looking for a revolutionary answer, one that would hold good for everyone who wishes to use spassing to change the world. She asks to find out what Stoffer might wish to find in himself, what humanity can he discover that would change him first and foremost and the world afterwards. Perhaps it isn't too different from what von Trier was trying to access in Hassing: the ability to work her way imaginatively into another's feelings and consequently get a better understanding of their own. When Tim Waters addresses the film he quotes Henri Lefebvre, who says "bourgeois individualism implies the dreary, ludicrous repetition of individuals who are curiously similar in their way of being themselves and of keeping themselves to themselves, in their speech, their gestures, in their everyday habits..." ('Reconsidering the Idiots') But to fight against them is less significant than to see them collapse in front of our eyes. Stoffer wishes to see this monument to cliche and expectation fall because it still very much stands in front of him. Karen sees how completely they have fallen for her and wishes to look at the rubble. We needn't say the mad are sane in the populist formulation of Laing's ideas to insist that those who understand collapse have something to tell us about the hollowness of the conventions one so often lives by.
These are conventions not only of society but also often of aesthetics too, and one reason why The Idiots was dismissed by many when it was released rested on the film's artistic failure, which was closely associated with von Trier's personal failings. Perhaps it was that von Trier openly acknowledged the script took him four days to write: it was thus clearly a work without merit; a dereliction of duty on the director's part as critics practiced the intentional fallacy as character assassination. The Seattle Post Intelligencer reckoned "von Trier is far more hypocritical than his straw-figure characters, and he's simply too cynical and insincere to be provocative." David Sterritt believed the film "tries to be daring and iconoclastic but winds up seeming as spoiled and childish as its main characters." (The Christian Science Monitor) Von Trier's insistence in making a film that mixes up names (as von Trier admits in the DVD interview), allows continuity errors (when Josephine and Jeppe make love one moment Jeppe has his shirt on, then off, then on again), and amateurish intrusions - we see the camera and the boom mike reflected in a car window - leaves his film open to criticism. But this suggests less pushing at an open door than the critic falling out of an open window. It is as though many of the criticism levelled against the film have already been deeply absorbed within it, as if the praise a film receives is so often so superficial that von Trier wanted to make one that would incapacitate the critics' arsenal just as he would limit his own aesthetic possibilities. Walters talks about the Dogme rules out of which the film works - the fact that von Trier doesn't have access to modulated lighting and optical effects and so on. But we can see the use of craft as a means by which critics needn't talk about what is most pressing in a work of art. by having the critical vocabulary that can allow him or her to talk about 'beautiful camerawork', 'stunning lighting', 'nuanced music' 'well-crafted mise en scene', 'breathtaking performances' and a 'well-arced story' the review can more or less write itself, just as the film is in danger of all but being made itself. Walters is right that Dogme wanted to intervene in what passed for film aesthetics: its primary aim is not to create legions of jagged, grainy films but to counter 'certain tendencies' in the cinema today.'" Equally, it can be a way of forestalling critical convention and forcing upon the critic a new dialogue. Rather than the conventional film made that demands the conventional critical vocabulary in response, von Trier removes the craft all the better to insist on a dialogue. Anyone who falls back on ad hominem attacks and the insistence on amateurism have missed the invite.
We suggest invitation rather than provocation partly because we see Karen as the most important figure in the film rather than Stoffer. Here we disagree with Walters and perhaps even a little with von Trier himself. Walters reckons Stoffer stands in for von Trier: "if we can accept that Stoffer is a sort-of stand-in for the brilliant, misunderstood and possibly deranged director, then the once-loathsome behaviour of the film's character can be viewed in a far more compelling light." Walters references von Trier's childhood growing up in a communal environment, his diaries and also his comments in Jesper Jargil's documentary on the film's making The Humiliated. However, this seems to be but one half of the film's purpose. Here we can see provocation but might more clearly seek the invitation. By viewing the film as readily from Karen's perspective (which is quite different from insisting she is our central character), The Idiots becomes a work that not only wants to confront but also wishes to propose. It is a confrontation to say that society is in need of radical change as people live compromised, dulled lives, full of social hypocrisy and personal despair, but it is a proposition to suggest that disability rather than ability should pass for the core of our culture. It is true that Stoffer more than Karen offers this argument in dialogue form when he makes his stone age comment, when saying all the idiots would have died but it doesn't need to be like this nowadays. "Being an idiot is a luxury but it is also a step-forward" as he wonders if the idiots are the future: that a person's purpose is to find their own, very specific idiot inside themselves. Yet there is little in Stoffer's attitude or behaviour that suggests vulnerability and even his mad moments might appear contrived. When he finds himself tied up by the other idiots after stripping naked and yelling in the streets, he insists that he will shut up if they release him. They start to untie him and he begins yelling again.
But he seems to be a sane man wishing to push further into the provocations of insanity rather than an ill man finding in himself his own vulnerability. When he attacks Jeppe for appearing half-hearted in his idiotic behaviour we might wonder whether that half-heartedness on Jeppe's part rests on a trepidation towards his own mental health - as though he might not be 'all there', and is thus wary of going there. When Jeppe in the post-commune interviews says "it was my idea but Stoffer wanted to do something about it", he smiles as if knowing he is talking nonsense, while von Trier's off-screen voice says nobody else saw him as the leader. Jeppe here comes across as fragile rather than playful, trying to suggest authority while revealing the opposite. When later in the film after Josephine drives off with her dad, Jeppe's cry of pain is more authentically chaotic and even spasmodic than anything we have seen from Stoffer. After sitting silently as the father takes Josephine away, he suddenly bursts into action and runs after the car. He looks like he will die for Josephine, and however temporary this feeling might be, it doesn't seem to lack insistence. Stoffer would be proud of him but that is the point: Stoffer can judge the behaviour of the others from a position of authority that also happens to be sanity. Some of the others never have this sense of authority and work from their vulnerability, and are thus much truer to the idiotic if we reckon that what matters is not provocation but invitation. When Jeppe pleads with Josephine he stays within body language rather than within words, as he cries with her while her father insists on closing the car door. It suggests he has indeed found his inner idiot.
If the idiocy often lies in body language rather than language, then what would the equivalent be cinematically? If Stoffer gets most of the lines that justify their actions, and Jeppe, Josephine, Karen and others express more clearly what the idiotic happens to be in action, then what would its manifestation be cinematically? What does an idiotic aesthetic look like? Perhaps exactly like this Dogme movement with its hand-held camerawork and its messy approach to lighting and mine en scene. Yet if we look at specific moments in The Idiots, the idiocy also perhaps needs to be idiosyncratic. When Jeppe takes off after Josephine much of the humour and the surprise lies in the cut between Jeppe running after the car and approaching the bonnet, and the car pulling away with Jeppe lying on top of it. The spontaneity of the gesture is met by the abruptness of the cut between the two shots. Jeppe seems as unhinged as the cuts happen to be. When Nana claims three men are touching her up after she asks for help putting back her bikini bra at the swimming pool she calls her 'husband' Ped to give the men a good telling off. Here Ped takes on the form of someone severely disabled as he hastens after them. The film cuts away from the action as if to say there is nothing more to see. The point doesn't lie in Ped defending Nana's honour but in undermining any potential macho behaviour on anyone's part. The three men look sheepish and defensive, as though a state of disability is the best possible way of disabling a potentially tense encounter. Now of course Nana has generated the awkwardness but von Trier is also mocking more the sort of scene where the damsel in distress allows her boyfriend to assert his masculinity. Here there is no masculinity to be asserted and the scene ends just where the typical macho action moment gets going. The scene becomes idiotic. Equally, when Stoffer leaves Jeppe in the company of some bikers in a bar, the scene concludes when Stoffer returns and takes him away. A potential fight turns into a gag, as at one moment the bikers reckon Jeppe needs to pee, take him down to the men's room and even hold his penis to help him urinate.
In such moments some might see variations of a pretty intellectually impoverished form of comedy, the sort of material the Farrelly brothers often utilised at around the same time as von Trier's film, with Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary and Shallow Hal. However, while the Farrelly bros searched out the big laugh, von Trier looks for the problematic thought. We may in a Farrelly bros film laugh against our better self, find ourselves laughing at moments that might be close to offence and never far from vulgarity, but we shouldn't pretend there is a question behind such troublesome rumbustiousness. If Marcuse, Laing, Deleuze and others can be brought to bear on The Idiots, this needn't be intellectual name-dropping all the better to elevate an easy laugh coming out of difficult subject matter, it is to insist that von Trier has an ethos underpinning the work. Sure, Paul Spinrad in 'How Low Can You Go?' threw in a reference to Aristophones when writing about the gross out film (There's Something About Mary, Animal House, Caddyshack, Airplane etc.), quoting Jeffrey Henderson in The Maculate Muse, who insists that "the obscenity of Aristophones is almost always integrally connects with the main themes...and can no more be readily excised from the plays than can any other major dramatic or poetic ingredients". (Sight and Sound) But Spinrad aims high to justify the low, but it is a one-off reference that asks us to take such films as aesthetically valid without trying to claim they are much of a contribution to thinking about ethics and aesthetics themselves.
However, that the Danish director wants to explore our complex relationship with mental health doesn't mean either that we automatically want to justify von Trier's right to offend; that anyone who doesn't get the radical thought underneath the broad comedy is missing the point and lacking a sense of humour. That would be to fall into the problem of assuming von Trier wants a given viewer when walking out might be a valid response, another and a rather different approach to offensiveness than the one practiced by the Farrellys, one also found in late nineties cinema, where in Seul contra tous the viewer was given a thirty-second warning to leave the cinema, and where in Funny Games the direct to camera address implicated the viewer in such a way that leaving the cinema would have been a valid response to the work. Von Trier is here part of a not so much a bums-on-seats economic imperative but instead a bums off seats ethical choice. This combination of a knotty problem that can without difficulty incorporate high theory and a position that indicates more than the bottom line, suggests that any simple comparison between von Trier and the Farrelly brothers is to miss the point. To walk out is a means by which to assert one's problem with a work that wants to be problematic. To reduce the film to the level of a Farrelly bros comedy is to do an injustice to what the problematic happens to be. The gross out comedy doesn't want us to walk out; it wants us to giggle over people throwing up. It seeks the big laugh over the first principle of its own offensiveness. The disruption in films like The Idiots with various audience members making for the exit isn't too far removed from the awkwardness the film itself generates diegetically.
Von Trier has said that in The Idiots he was interested in authenticity: "this is authenticity in the guise comedy. And comedy isn't something you associate with authenticity." (Trier on Von Trier) But can we take the director's word for it, and isn't authenticity a word easy to use but hard to define? Yet the word in this context can be used to understand the violence it does to its own diegesis, the means by which it achieves humour without relying on the comedic. Though the film is full of what might be called set-pieces, full of scenes that lend themselves to comedic possibilities, they rarely possess comedic through-lines. We could see this as the director's comedic incompetence but better surely to view it as von Trier's understanding that comedy is a means to an end rather than that end. The bikers never find out that Stoffer has been making a fool of them with Jeppe, the moment when Jeppe throws himself on the car is very funny but is an isolated instance within a horribly distressing scene, and when Stoffer runs along the street taking off his clothes and yelling fascist at a council worker the situation is absurd but not quite funny. It's as if von Trier is conceptually humorous rather than situationally hilarious: he wants us to see the absurdity in a situation rather the comedy that can be extracted out of it. Whether it is Melancholia, where a depressive understands better than anybody else that the world will end, Breaking the Waves, where a woman starts fondling strangers on a bus as a means by which to serve God and return her husband to health, or Manderlay, where black slaves find that after being given their freedom they fall into some of the same master/slave dialectics that they have escaped from, von Trier doesn't wish to make comedies but to flip situations around so that they bring out inherent absurdities. The Idiots finds absurd how we react to those whose faculties are deemed less adequate than the norm, but at the same time doesn't claim it knows best how to resolve that question, even if does seem to insist that the answer doesn't lie in piety. Herein lies its authenticity.
Our take is that it would appear to demand a self-accessing, an awareness of the idiocy that can generate sorrow rather than a spectacle insisting on anger. Stoffer is angry; Karen is sorrowful. When she returns at the end of the film to the family home she has left behind a fortnight earlier, perhaps unable to live with the loss of her child in the company of those too who would have loved him, she manages to do what nobody else in the group has achieved. She spasses in front of loved ones as the cake she eats starts dribbling out her mouth. Her husband gives her a hard smack. The camera movements are unsteady, as if caught between a need to stay and see what will develop and a need to leave to avoid facing further embarrassment. The film cuts to Susanne who starts to cry and the film cuts back to Karen before Susanne stands up and says to Karen that is enough, before saying "shall we go?" The film ends with them leaving the flat, the messiest of social situations making a mockery of Stoffer's earlier efforts at generating discord. Von Trier achieves a comedy of embarrassment that manages to dissolve both words into the authenticity he seeks. Without that dissolution, we wouldn't possess the authentic but the protective carapace of the comedic. This isn't at all to undermine masterful comedies from Modern Times to His Girl Friday, from Some Like it Hot to The General) But to understand The Idiots is to comprehend the self's need to be idiotic rather than comedy's frequent need merely to show the idiotic. In this distinction, and in the word's original definition, lies much of the film's greatness.
© Tony McKibbin