To watch Lars von Trier’s The Idiots is to see a dead dog rise and howl at the moon. The dog is a century’s worth of Dadaists, avant-garde theater troupes and convention-hating communards–cliques that no longer hound present-day society, unless they’re jolted into jerky, artificial motion. Von Trier, playing Dr. Frankenstein of the Dogs, patched together one such animal and made it yip when he assembled the Dogma ’95 group of filmmakers. (In a gesture that combined irony with nostalgia, Dogma even issued a manifesto.) The Idiots–a 1998 film that is now being released in the United States–takes as its subject another such group, this one wholly fictional. They are a disorganization of youngish people living as squatters in an affluent suburb of Copenhagen, who devote themselves to upsetting bourgeois propriety by “spassing”: pretending to be mentally retarded.
Suiting style to matter, von Trier narrates the story like an idiot. The characters initially lack families, jobs, hobbies, educations, sexual relationships or access to a calendar. The camera, which is itself a kind of idiot, records nothing about these people except immediate data: physiognomies, clothes and names. It’s only at the very end of the movie that we learn how many days have passed. It’s only then that we discover what any “normal” film would have told us right away: the back story of the point-of-view character.
Her name is Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), and when first seen she is at a carnival, watching the Wheel of Fortune spin. She smiles a lot–sweetly, simply, joylessly–as if resigned to the wheel’s decisions. Her eyes, dark and sunken, develop deeper creases with every grin. Her clothes–a loose, puke-green sweater, worn over a floral-print pillowcase of a dress–hang from her body like an apology, addressed to the world at large.
We don’t know how Karen reached this state, only that she’s been reduced to dining alone in restaurants where waiters feel free to insult her. It’s at this point that she encounters her first Idiots, led by lanky, white-blond Stoffer (Jens Albinus), whose long face is composed of a bottle-opener nose over rubber-band lips. He’s having a high time in the restaurant, using these caricaturist’s features for the purpose of drooling, rolling his head and “being friendly” to diners who wish he’d go away. Karen alone won’t shrink from him. Without knowing he’s putting on an act, she holds his hand and so, inadvertently, gets swept away with the group.
In effect, she’s joined an acting company, as The Idiots soon makes clear. After an excursion, the troupe reviews its performance, with Stoffer arrogating to himself the post of director. (“Jeppe stank. He wasn’t in the moment. Did you think he was in the moment?” “I don’t know, I was trying to feel it for myself.”) As if this weren’t enough, the film occasionally exposes its own tools, allowing a boom mike to drop into the picture or letting one camera operator catch another at work. Not that the camera operators work well. Crowingly crude in look, The Idiots is a mess of jostling frames, on-the-fly pans and unadjusted exposures. The most “artless” technique, signifying raw-life documentary, records the antics of fictional characters; the fictional characters meanwhile demonstrate what’s being done by real actors, right before your eyes.
It’s canny of von Trier to have us follow Karen into this maze. Pleasant-looking rather than attractive, on the cusp between youth and middle age, she’s the perfect middling figure, always well-meaning and common-sensical. Aren’t we all? So, in effect, she’s like an audience member, put up on the screen among the actors. Through her, we’re attracted to Stoffer and the other Idiots; through her, we’re repulsed by them; and through her, we experience the breakdown between art and life, or rather the breakdown of life.