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It’s Jackass by way of Lars Von Trier

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s five days of Lars Von Trier, as we single out some of the Danish director’s more unheralded triumphs in honor of his latest, Nymphomaniac.

The Idiots (1998)

Having caused a firestorm upon its initial 1998 release, The Idiots now looks like a kind of formalist auto-critique. Lars Von Trier is in full provocateur mode, pushing buttons via the story of a group of young people who, in defiance of the stultifying middle-class culture they abhor, spend their days and nights pretending to be mentally disabled. Led by Stoffer (Jens Albinus), this “family” of wannabe rebels is introduced causing a scene at a restaurant, where they unwittingly gain a new member in Karen (Bodil Jørgensen). Despite thinking that the group’s goofing around is insulting to those with real disabilities, Karen joins them back at Stoffer’s uncle’s house—which the young man is supposed to be selling, but is instead using as their base of operations—and, before long, is taking part in their absurd games.


The gags involve acting like “spazzes” in front of a local government official and at a public pool, where Von Trier shoots a nude Stoffer’s erection in close-up—a preface to a later gang bang in which the director makes sure to include a momentary shot of explicit intercourse. Like the action proper, such moments are designed to outrage in a manner that’s in-your-face juvenile, but Von Trier’s pranksterism seems less about offending delicate politically correct sensibilities than subtle self-mockery. Adhering to Dogme 95’s aural and visual restrictions—no diegetic music, natural lighting, handheld cinematography—the director gives The Idiots the façade of realism while regularly exposing the material’s underlying artifice: Camera setups reveal faux verité moments to have been pre-planned and staged, while several scenes (especially the climax) feature deliberately mismatched close-ups. The Idiots turns out to be not just a precursor to Jackass and its humor-in-the-wild ilk, but also something of a caustic appraisal of itself and its protagonists. All the against-the-grain rebelliousness depicted is undercut by Von Trier’s suggestion that everything on screen—the stunts, the ideologies, his own aesthetic pretensions—is one big joke.

Availability: The region 1 DVD of The Idiots appears to be out of print—it can be obtained through Amazon, for an arm and a leg—but the film can be purchased digitally on iTunes.