The Idiots is Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s 1998 exploration of normality as a social system, the constraints it places on individuals to behave in prescribed ways even under abnormal circumstances. The film chronicles the escapades of a small group of young middle-class men and women who have formed an organization to upset what they perceive to be bourgeois principles and participants, that is, well-to-do and unscrupulous people. The group attempts to accomplish its goals by acting as if they are mentally challenged, so as to annoy the gentlefolk with their “spassing” (spastic behavior), and interacting with each other within the confines of their private commune. Here they create their own subculture with behaviors very different from those enforced by conventional society, which, of course, allows for extensive comical nudity and poor table manners.
In telling this tale, which he wrote in four days during May 1997, von Trier utilizes the Dogme 95 filmmaking technique, one as convention-breaking and uncontrollable as the subversive subculture he depicts. Dogme 95 was conceived by a small group of Danish directors who wanted to break the rules of modern movie-making. To consolidate their rebellion, they wrote a set of new tenets: filmmakers working within these rules must record sound and picture at once, not use props, manipulated light, or musical scores, and loosen typical restrictions on improvisation. This all fits perfectly with The Idiots’ efforts to subvert and “poke fun” at the cultural hegemony while at the same time acknowledging individual needs for rules and patterns. The film also explores how some of these rules are easily adopted and others fragment the psyche, contingent on the given environment and social situation: a set pattern for acting cannot work for everyone in every situation.
The Idiots focuses mainly on one woman’s struggle to find a way to behave under tragic circumstances while maintaining both her identity and sanity. Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), a lonely and depressed lower-middle-class woman, unexpectedly meets three members of the organization led by the egotistical intellectual Stoffer (Jens Albinus), and is drawn into their fold. She participates in the group’s subversive activities by finding her “inner idiot” that part of the self that is yet undefined and unappreciated by a bourgeois society. However, Karen is not the same as the other idiots, in that she is not acting on theory or principle, but from her own desperate psychological needs, in particular, her immediate need to deal with the reality and unpredictability of death. We discover that she has abandoned her family following a recent tragedy (particulars are never revealed). Where enculturation fails, idiocy prevails, and Karen copes with her loss by freeing her innocent and inarticulate nature.
For each of the group’s members, acting like an idiot is a personal and unique expression, a release from repressive social limitations but also from real responsibilities. For example, Axel (Knud Romer Jorgensen) uses the Idiots to escape the reality of his wife’s recent childbirth and all the burdens it bears (he claims rearing a child is too middle-class) and enjoys an affair with another member, Katrine (Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis), acting out both his latent aggressions toward society and the repressed sexuality of his monogamous marriage. However, the idealism of these lofty abstractions, making fun of middle-class culture through play-acting, begins to fray when reality forces the group to accept their responsibilities.
It is this conflict between responsibility and freedom that the film exposes and which underlies an essential contradiction in life: living a free life any life has its own rules and potential for fascism as well. Stoffer, who loses all control when faced with “fascists” (such as municipal bureaucrats) resembles the typical authoritarian leader in his uncaring and domineering attitude toward others, seeing himself as the best idiot, the most rebellious, challenging them to live up to his ideals. In a further critique of the myth of a totally free lifestyle and irresponsible rebellion, the group’s communal system works only because they are staying at Stoffer’s rich uncle’s house, use Axel’s corporate credit card to buy food, and fail to face their private lives with their idiocy. If spassing out cannot be incorporated into one’s daily life, then the problems and stress of typical reality are not rectified, only repressed as heartily as one’s inner idiot was beforehand.
The only character who seems to need this form of therapy is Karen, whose life has been shattered by her recent trauma. She does not have the luxury to view this behavior as “only” joking, or as a theoretical attack on the bourgeoisie. It is not some airy ideal for her, but a means to unleash real pain and try to find delight in life again. For this reason, she is the only one capable of bringing her newfound idiocy back home to display in front of her closest relatives. So, when Stoffer challenges the group to formalize their solidarity by spassing out in their private lives, away from the support of the entire group, Karen is the only one to succeed. She, as an individual, needs this rehabilitating experience not only to free herself of social constraints, but to make it to the next stage of her life.
The other idiots realize that giving up control only has meaning when control can be reasserted afterwards. The group dissolves upon failing their respective tests and the members never see each other again. Karen returns to visit her wrecked family and spasses silently during a tense reunion and leaves when her grieving husband physically chastises her. The ending is ambiguous, but it is this ambiguity, free from cut-and-dried definitions or meanings, which gives value to the Idiots, both in content (as a group) and form (as a film). Opening a door to one’s own unhampered emotionality, escaping rigidity and habit, and rediscovering the abnormal can be a method for growth and coping with difficult situations, but there are limits. Returning to those situations and dealing with them should be the eventual goal, according to the film; the Idiots cannot exist perpetually.
However, as interviews with the characters throughout the film express, the experience of having participated in the group affects each member forever, and here is the potential for change. Although the film never overtly depicts Karen’s fate after spassing in front of her mourning family, we are certain is the most defiant act of her life, as well as in the film. The Idiots points out that it is the individual empowered to resist cultural edicts which creates the arena for true social transformation. Karen’s act demonstrates the arbitrariness of civilized behavior and becomes a singular triumph amidst clashing ideologies, but neither of these results can provide a utopian existence free from responsibility or the harsh terrors of the unexpected.