Monday, October 4, 2010

The Idiots


I've not seen a lot of Lars Von Trier's films (Antichrist, *shudder*) and generally know more about him from interviews and reviews than from his films. What I do know, however, is that clear meanings and easy answers tend not to be big in his films. The Idiots is a perfect case-in-point and, whilst I would never say I want a director to be heavy handed, to spell things out in an overly laboured manner, I do sometimes, just sometimes think that, when you finish a film and think, "uh..... what?", the director has actually failed slightly.

The basic set-up here is that we follow Karen and her time with 'The Idiots' who are a bunch of white, middle-class hippies in Denmark who are living together peacefully enough in a commune (well, Stoffer's uncle's house) and get their kicks by prancing around in public pretending to be mentally retarded. They call this 'spazzing'.

Now sure, top marks for potentially offensive material but this is nothing unique in itself. In fact (and yes, I realise it's actually a later example) the League of Gentlemen springs to mind as a comparison (Legz Akimbo theatre group have a day pretending to be disabled). The difference however is that whilst the League of Gentlemen's characters are awful, horrible people who you watch whilst peeping through your fingers, unsure whether to laugh or cry, the characters of The Idiots by contrast are sympathetic, funny and friendly (for the most part). They have a good time "spazzing" and then go home to laugh about it.

Ah, ok then. So if we're not groaning at the characters' sheer insensitivity we must be laughing at their targets, right? After all, this is a projected social-attack. They pretend to be retarded to draw responses from the people in society, to demonstrate how poorly most people know how to react or engage with the mentally handicapped, right? This is about sticking it to the man!

Hardly. Although lead Idiot, Stoffer, firmly believes they are challenging societies values, von Trier goes out of his way to make it clear they are a long way from that. Most of the people we see reacting to the Idiots are a little awkward, sure, but generally pretty nice. If anything, Stoffer must have been fuming and just how accepting their victims were. In an excruciating scene in which Stoffer dumps his pretend-idiot friend in the hands of a group of Hell's Angels and scarpers, the director shows us extreme and selfless kindness on the part of the bikers; it becomes clearer and clearer that the cold, unsympathetic, economy-lead society that the Idiots are kicking against are simply all too accepting.

So what is the point? Well that's less clear.

Let's turn briefly to the more simple goods and bads: the acting is simply fantastic. You don't have to understand, agree or approve of a film to notice the acting and, whatever you think of the Idiots, there is no doubt that von Trier was working with a fabulous team of actors; they're just so credible it's er... incredible (!). Similarly the (wonderfully unconventional) sex-scene is simply brilliant, jaw-dropping and unforgettable. I don't want to say too much and spoil it but let's say it involves lots of people and a bit of running around the garden...

Where the film falls down however are the unexplained or implausible points. For such a well acted film, the occasional structural hole is just irritating. For one, much of the film is shot as a documentary. We have interviews with the Idiots looking back at being Idiots yet the story has no real close. This is simply irritating (and very similar to the drifting approach to documentary that plagued District 9) as it makes no sense; if we can talk to the characters afterwards it doesn't follow that we leave the story and such an undecided ending. There are certain characters missing from the interviews - why? what happened to them? why doesn't anyone finish their story? This is not ambiguity; this is a set of lazily loose ends that go nowhere.


My major problem with it though is, when all is said and done, not a very major problem. It only sticks out so much because it is the last scene in the film, from which we fade to black and so it obviously hangs around in the memory. In it, we see Karen go home to her family and pretend to be an Idiot there. It turns out that she actually joined the Idiots the day before the funeral of her child and had been hiding from the reality of it ever since. Ok. So a woman disappears the day before her child's funeral? What do you do? "We thought you were dead" says Karen's sister... so why wasn't there a police hunt for her? Since when did almost-certainly-depressed women vanishing before a very depressing funeral get shrugged off with a "oh she's probably just dead"? Seriously? I totally understand that part of the point was the uncaring, heartlessness of her family but you still don't just presume someone's dead and do nothing about it. Even more impressively, her piggish brute of a husband jumps to the staggeringly illogical conclusion that, seeing as she is, in fact, alive, her disappearance for two weeks from the funeral and her family demonstrates that she "didn't care about it very much". If this were a less realist film, if the characters and reactions were all so implausible I might let this slide as but in this context it just sticks out as patently unrealistic and silly. No-one could come to the conclusions her family and husband come to.

If that seems like a bit of a rant over a comparatively minor point, well, it is. But it's a point that did irritate me and certainly lessened my enjoyment of the film. Generally, however, it's an enthralling, interesting and funny film which is definitely worth watching. You do feel slightly uncomfortable afterwards when you realise that, without any clear message, your enjoyment of the film is derived mostly from watching people pretend to be retarded but... perhaps that guilt is the point?

[no screenshots, sorry]