Publicity, as all good modernists should know, is the lifeblood of any successful avant-garde. It may be a bit of a stretch to term the refurbished, mock-militant neorealism of Dogma ’95 a vanguard, but the movement’s cofounder and best-known exponent, Danish bad boy Lars von Trier, is nothing if not an impressive self-promoter.
Dogma’s restrictions—no tripods, no background music, no artificial lighting, no special effects—may be less a serious polemic than a canny branding gimmick. The so-called Dogma Brothers’ “Vow of Chastity,” allegedly dashed off by a giggling von Trier in half an hour, reinforces its author’s position as European cinema’s most relentless stunt-meister in the several decades since Werner Herzog was hypnotizing the cast of Heart of Glass or schlepping a steamboat through the rainforest for Fitzcarraldo.
The main thing that distinguishes Dogma’s vaunted realism from that of cinema verité is the presence of actors. Hence von Trier’s most notorious provocation to date, finally opening here nearly two years after it grossed-out half the Cannes Film Festival, is a self-reflexive jape. The Idiots is a movie about acting . . . out. Operating under some obscure philosophical imperative, the youthful members of a Copenhagen commune confound the local bourgeoisie with a form of dada guerrilla theater, engaging in wildly regressive, sometimes disgusting behavior in public places—what they call “spassing.”
Von Trier pushes beyond punk paeans to pinheads and cretins to stage the comic spectacle of adult normals drooling, thrashing, disrobing, and otherwise mimicking the extreme agitation of the mentally disabled. On one hand, this politically incorrect telethon run amok is a further development of the Down’s syndrome chorus that von Trier employed in The Kingdom or even his heroine’s sexually “idiotic” behavior in Breaking the Waves. On the other hand, it’s the essence of Dogma theatrics. The last two Dogma films to open in New York, Harmony Korine’s julien donkey-boy—shot, like The Idiots, on video—and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune, both trade heavily on the entertainment value of having actors play morons.
Designed to provoke laughter at the unlaughable, The Idiots opens with a manifestation in which some communards harass the patrons of a genteel restaurant while others pretend to be their embarrassed caretakers. The scene directly addresses the very issue of table manners, which anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously saw as the bedrock of civilization; it also provides the commune with an ongoing foil. Thanks to their performance, the idiots pick up a lonely diner named Karin—a strategy that drops this viewer-surrogate in the midst of various infantile antics as they stage a field trip to a factory or invade a public swimming pool.
For the most part, the idiots resemble a gaggle of untalented Harpo Marx imitators. Meanwhile, a dogged wet blanket, Karin keeps trying to understand the meaning of what they are doing. (Their vaguely ’60s ideology is never really explained, although as semi-serious performance artists, the group holds postmortem discussions complete with psychobabble references to their “inner idiots” and earnest manifestos like “Idiots are the people of the future.”) Von Trier, who is credited as director of photography, further ups the ante by shooting the movie in a documentary frenzy of smear-pans and camera-flails.
The filmmaker can occasionally be heard offscreen asking questions, and the fictional nature of his film is further complicated by several pranks that seemingly involve innocent bystanders, as when the idiots go door-to-door in a wealthy neighborhood attempting to sell their homemade, hilariously stunted Christmas ornaments. There is also a birthday gang bang, which to judge from The Idiots‘ early reviews, included actual penetration. The U.S. release print obscures this by employing floating black rectangles (often ridiculously outsize) to conceal the actors’ genitalia. This outlandish discretion is but one of The Idiots‘ old-fashioned elements. Von Trier uses the orgy as a prelude to a more tender—if scarcely less regressive—one-on-one love scene. (The corniness is further compounded when one participant’s father shows up to take her home, explaining that she’s a real schizophrenic gone off her medication.)
Von Trier’s elaborate metaphor for filmmaking was itself the subject of a feature-length documentary, Jesper Jargil’s The Humiliated—also a Dogma project, shot like most of The Idiots with a digital camcorder—aptly described by its maker as “a day in von Trier’s puppet theater.” I caught The Humiliated (shown last fall in the Walter Reade’s Danish series) before seeing The Idiots. Then, it seemed an effective teaser for von Trier’s film; now, it appears that, in promoting the documentary, the master may have upstaged himself.
Like Burden of Dreams, the Les Blank account of Werner Herzog’s travails in the jungle making Fitzcarraldo, The Humiliated is more powerful than the movie it documents—as well as more successfully Dogmatic. Including most of The Idiots‘ key scenes (without added fig leaves) and more, The Humiliated makes clear that von Trier’s film was a pretext to make something happen in life as much as on film. Jargil includes not only audio tapes of von Trier’s on-set rantings but the spectacle of the artist’s idiocy, directing without his trousers and convulsed with laughter at his own mischief.
Ending amid the detritus of the shoot, The Humiliated strongly intimates that The Idiots was a failed experiment. Of course, von Trier suggests as much with his own ending. Having failed to re-enter society as idiots, the commune breaks up—only to discover, in a scene of quiet horror, that, liberated by example, their little fellow traveler is the greatest idiot of all. In the fiction of the movie, life trumps art; in the reality of the film, however, it is precisely the reverse.
If The Idiots plumbs the depths of smirky neo-primitivism, the two short features paired this week at Film Forum are exemplary instances of the sophisticated primitivism that used to be called Third Way cinema. Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety’s The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun and Indian director Murali Nair’s Throne of Death are both sardonic, stylized parables of underdevelopment in which vivid nonactors perform, as though partaking in village rituals, against documentary backdrops of tropical splendor.
Throne of Death, which won the Camera d’Or for best first film last year at Cannes, is a satire of Indian politics. Caught stealing coconuts to feed his starving family, a hapless tenant farmer is jailed and falsely accused of an old, unsolved murder. Because it is an election year, his case becomes an issue. The local Communist hacks take a break from pondering the situation in Kosovo to organize a mass meeting—although once these comrades read about the new “electronic chair” imported from America (with the help of a World Bank loan), they shift from demanding the farmer’s freedom to insisting on his right to enjoy a modern “blissful” death. The movie has bite, although its paradisal setting (in the southern state of Kerala) mitigates much of the pain. The village may lack electricity and running water but the palm tree beachscape exudes utter tranquility—not least in framing the farmer’s grotesque apotheosis.
Considerably more affirmative, The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun is framed as a marketplace legend: “This story is a hymn to the courage of street children.” Sili, an indomitable crippled girl, the granddaughter of a blind street singer, reinvents herself as a vendor of the local newspaper Soleil (hence the title). To spread the news, as it were, she must prevail over mercenary cops and the bullying of jealous rivals. A live wire bent to some new design, Sili galvanizes the neighborhood. In one scene, a group of girls dance behind her, imitating her hobbled gait in a form of celebration. (The wonderful percolating score is by the filmmaker’s younger brother, the singer Wasis Diop.)
A bold, vibrant, and splashy 45 minutes, The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun was the last film completed by the talented Mambety before his death in Paris two summers ago. His legacy is similarly concentrated—two remarkable features, Touki Bouki and Hyenas, which will be showing as part of the Sixth African Film Festival, next month at the Walter Reade.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 25, 2000