09 July 2009

Flashback at the movies: The Idiots.

As he was adapting J.G. Ballard's novel Crash for the screen, David Cronenberg would speak of several meetings he'd had with potential studio backers. Each of them wanted him to begin with the main characters grounded in normality, making the path of the film easier for audiences to identify with and to follow. With most films, it is rather easy to follow the path; no matter how many twists and turns you take, more often than not you'll wind up about where you started, with a little more knowledge and a few scratches, but ready to move on.

So what happens when you experience a film that never lets you know where you are on the path? I choose that terminology for a specific reason- you cannot just watch The Idiots. You have to experience it. As a film, it is far too precise in its use of the viewer's own sense of embarrassment to simply be viewed. And it is that queasy sense of nervousness and mortification that Writer/Director Lars von Trier uses to hook you. Or, as the derisive boos and innumerable walkouts which greeted the film at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival demonstrated, it is that queasy sense of nervousness which will drive you away. Not to mention the hardcore sex.

Ostensibly the tale of a collective of individuals so contemptuous of bourgeois society that they must act mentally disabled in public ("spassing," as they call it), The Idiots is a story about love and security, and how modern life, for most, is tragically devoid of either. This is the second film in von Trier's "Golden Heart" trilogy (the first being 1996's Breaking the Waves, the third 2000's Dancer in the Dark). This heroine is a melancholy and just soul named Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), who becomes our audience surrogate during the course of the film. She is found in a restaurant by three of the collective and brought into the group by her own kindness. Emotional need responds to emotional need, and she reaches out rather than withdrawing.

She begins to make friends with the group: the gentle and good-hearted Susanne (Anne Louise Hassing), the meek Josephine (Louise Mieritz, whose work here is quietly devastating), the bourgeois Axel (Knud Romer Jorgensen), the uncertain Jeppe (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, a gifted actor with a remarkably expressive face), the cipher Katrine (Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis), as well as several other men and women. We see these men and women of the group in terms of the collective, yet we also experience their recollection of their time spent at the house in the Danish town of Sollerod. The film's timespace fragments, as an unseen interviewer asks the members about their time as idiots, and about their specific memories. There is one common element to each of their stories: Karen.

As Karen becomes an accepted member, taking in the various antics of the group, from a darkly comic trip to an insulation factory to an emotionally harrowing visit to the public pool, each time she experiences the group's tactics, sometimes as silent observer, other times as minder.

"You poke fun," she tells the group's argumentative leader, Stoffer (Jens Albinus). The group may spass all they want in public, but they return to their headquarters and evaluate each other's performance with clinical proficiency. What liberation can there be in such an empty and academic gesture? Von Trier tips no hands, making the motivation of each character a mystery to be untangled from the mess of rage, sadness, and raw aching need. As such, the film was an ideal choice to be made under the auspices of the Dogme 95 manifesto.

As developed by von Trier and three other renowned Danish filmmakers (Thomas Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Kristian Levring), the basic tenets of Dogme 95 involve stripping artifice from filmmaking, eliminating artificial lighting, allowing only handheld cameras and recording only 'the moment,' which supersedes all other artistic aims. It is a kind of storytelling that is suited to emotional exploration and modern melodrama, and like its predecessor, Vinterberg's Festen (The Celebration), The Idiots opens itself up, warts and all, to the unflinching ugly eye of digital video. By the very nature of its visual reproduction, the use of DV lends a certain equality to the film's many surroundings, making every scene feel like something intercepted, making voyeurs of us all.

Which brings me to the hardcore sex. Fortunately for us Puritans here in the U.S., the MPAA decided that we didn't need to see what genitals do, and there is ample use of big black boxes to make sure that no one sees what happens to be between anyone's legs. As usual, the double standard is alive and well, because the MPAA has no problem with female nudity. It disturbs me that the ratings board of this country would rather give an R-rating to a film in which torsos are bloodily impaled on protruding spikes and nails (twice, as in the recent Exit Wounds) but not to a film that happens to have non-bloody consensual sexual activity. And for that matter, why did the film's US distributors feel the need to censor for an R-rating at all? The viewing habits of today's underage moviegoer do not include foreign films, even with sex and nudity, and especially with their parents. But I digress.

This is not a film for everyone. This is the kind of film I would not recommend to those who are skittish or easily offended, because those people are right to be skittish about this film. This is the kind of film that delivers many moments of absolute cinematic purity that burn very very brightly, detonating the emotional powderkeg that has been building up inside the viewer's shame and love centers. In the last half hour in particular, there is a very concentrated power that I can in no way define or articulate; my first viewing of this film left me so emotionally incapacitated that I had to turn around and immediately watch Charlotte's Web.

You will not be the same when this film is over.

So take that as a warning, but take also this enticement to those who feel that they are up for it: there are many paths to take in this film. Tread lightly, in case you have to find your way back.

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