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The Idiots (Lars von Trier) 2000

“Now Lars von Trier, one of Dogma's founders, has used these techniques to produce a two-hour, semi-pornographic Mentos commercial.” – A.O. Scott, The New York Times

Lars von Trier is, to me, one of the most consistently intriguing media figures of the last few years. He’s so determined to carve a niche for himself in film history that he seems to be guaranteed one, at very least, due to his grandstanding. Critical reception to this self-proclaimed genius is certainly mixed. It’s not surprising that he is usually able to alienate a good portion of his audience before they even view his film. Others, like Scott, seem unable to get a concrete grasp on what they’re watching. For my money, the film is a masterpiece. Combined with his other 2000 U.S. release, Dancer in the Dark, von Trier has proven his self-proclamations of cinematic genius to be true.   

    Clearly, The Idiots, von Trier’s first - and quite possibly last - Dogma film challenges the viewer. I don’t mean to say that it’s a film that requires a great deal of thought to understand. Rather, I mean it actively challenges the viewer’s sensibilities. More than any of his other films, it seems to have a political and aesthetic agenda. That agenda seems to be to punish the viewer for having the desire to see what most filmmakers give us willingly. Perhaps punish is too strong a word. Many find von Trier's filmmaking sadistic, but it's actually quite giving. Although he shocks us in this film by showing us hardcore sexual penetration when we get excited by the prospect of an orgy, or by continuing to show us his tribe's initially hilarious idiotic behavior well past the point where it makes us uncomfortable, he's actually considerate enough to point out the lapses in thought that result in having these desires in the first place. It's quite responsible of him artistically to point out the fallacies in deriving pleasure in the gross-out comedies that are currently experiencing a resurgence. 

    The film also makes us focus on our social mores as we watch the film's tribe. In the first scene, we have no idea that the "spazzing" is just an act. Our initial reactions to the first scene's inappropriateness is embarrassment for all those involved. When we see that the spazzer was faking, it's galling and intriguing. Much like the film's creators must have felt with their Dogmatic style's challenges, the troupe of idiots doesn't much know what the end result of their work will be. We watch them as they continually escalate the level of their pranks, with harrowing and humorous results. The film teeters between being the most unwatchable and the most watchable film ever. It never tells us how to feel about its characters, and it certainly seems at once to be chastising and endorsing the behavior on display. Perhaps it's because von Trier has previously demonstrated himself as such a cinematic provocateur, that we feel up to the film's challenge. When the group's leader eventually throws down the gauntlet, and challenges the group to take their spazzing home, a lot of the group's ideological flaws that have been accumulating since the film's start become destructive. We realized that the group, and the film was full of it, and it is good to see that von Trier does not try to make us believe otherwise. The film's ultimate resolution is satisfying (which seems to mimic Dreyer's Gertrud), since it doesn't necessarily endorse a conviction in a specific belief system, but, rather, belief in general.

**** - Masterpiece

September, 2001

Jeremy Heilman