Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Idiots (1998)

Synopsis: A bunch of neo, proto, ersatz anarcho hippies in Denmark spend their time pretending to be mentally handicapped, which they do in order to question social morality and values. Or something. A new recruit gets sucked into this world and eventually releases "her inner spass" before a truly emotional and shocking denouement.

This was one of those films that I'd meant to watch for years, ever since Lars Von Trier and the Dogme '95 lot from Denmark released their manifesto. I had very set preconceptions about what the film would be like - pretentious, boring, pointless, badly made. So, I was slightly trepidatious when putting it in the DVD player. I was, very happily, proved wrong on all counts.

Whilst the idea of a manifesto to make films without using artificial light or using much post production etc. sounds wanky, it is a very interesting experiment. What can you achieve if you strip away the well accepted touch ups and techniques used in film making? After watching the film, I don't think that it detracts from the story or feel of the film. Some have described The Idiots as having a documentary feel, but I didn't see that at all. The way it is constructed by including interviews with members of the group could be seen as documentary style, but the intervening action is very different, being so intimate and delicate as to contrast very strongly with a non-fiction tale. We aren't watching characters who are being self-consciously watched.

The film is also far from boring. Each vignette or episode is really nicely put together and keeps your interest. You can never quite believe what you're watching (the group at a swimming pool, hanging out with some Hell's Angels and scaring off a potential house buyer) but rather than giving you that cringeworthy embarrassment associated with Sasha Baron Cohen's Borat or Ali G's exploits, the idiots in The Idiots are so in character and are so vulnerable in those characters, that you feel an empathy and an anger, but not embarrassment.

Now, the accusation of the film being pointless is a bit more difficult to defend. As you get to know the group of middle class dropouts we realise that it's a game to them, a game that they try to justify but you never really understand. Ultimately, as the group disintegrates and the heroine reveals her own, very real, tragedy, you do wonder what any of them has achieved through their messing about. However, I think it is some what successful in highlighting how society reacts to the handicapped (we see a local council representative trying to bribe the 'handicapped' home to move to a neighbouring borough).

It was the technical and aesthetic aspects of the film that really had my preconceptions turned around. I expected handheld camerawork and natural lighting, which there is, complete with getting shots of the mic boom and second camera on film. But, the quality of the framing and the structure of the shots is so good that whilst we're dealing with some amateurish techniques, we do not get amateurish results. I just kept thinking, 'wow, these guys really know what they're doing'. The acting, which is first rate, also keeps the quality threshold pretty high, belying the overall feel of the film.

There are a few sequences that really stood out for me as particularly excellent. The first scene that has stayed with me is towards the end of the story as the group throw a party in the house that ends in an orgy (including an infamous shot of penetration). Two of the more delicate characters, Jeppe and Josephine (pictured above) go off on their own to another room. Whilst still in 'spass' character they very slowly and tenderly embrace and proclaim their love to each other. It's such an intimate moment and so beautifully played.

The other scene that really blew me away was the heroine, Karen, returning home with another member of the group, Susanne, to visit her family. We're not quite sure what is going on as Karen is effectively blanked by her mother as she re enters the family home. However, fairly quickly we become aware that Karen joined the group just after her baby son had died, missing his funeral. To make things even worse, Karen has agreed to 'spass' in front of her family to prove to the group the importance of their 'work'. As Karen's family sits quietly pouring coffee and eating cake we see her gradually begin to display mentally handicapped traits (not being able to eat properly). The actress playing Karen, Bodil Jorgensen, has a wonderfully expressive face, with downcast eyes, emphasising her pathetic nature. The scene is played so well, leaving you feeling shocked, devastated and that everything suddenly falls into place. Here is a very damaged woman in need of care and love, who has been hanging around with a group in which, on the face of it, sympathy is scarce. But, actually the group do give love and a sense of family on some odd level. It doesn't last, but clearly has a somewhat positive impact on each member.

So, it is definitely worth watching. An engaging, intriguing, interesting film with brilliant acting and a refreshing approach to film making.

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