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Getting in Touch With Oneself, Others in 'Idiots'

June 23, 2000|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Idiots" suggests that if Danish iconoclast Lars von Trier's filmsare getting tougher, they're also continuing to reward the patient.

It is yet another film made according to the rules of Dogma 95, the Copenhagen film collective that insists on location shooting, direct sound, hand-held cameras, no camera trickery, no superficial action sequences, no use of genre, no black-and-white film, no special lighting. The director is not supposed to be credited, but how could von Trier be considered anything but an auteur? (That's like Ingmar Bergman famously describing himself as anonymous as an artisan helping build a medieval cathedral.)

A pretty though worn-looking young woman, Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), is sitting alone at a tastefully upscale restaurant, apparently somewhere in suburban Copenhagen, when an obstreperous young man Stoffer (Jens Albinus), seemingly retarded, grasps her wrist as his companion Susanne (Louise Hassing) tries to usher him out. He won't let go, and Karen, for good reasons of her own, is not in a fighting mood.

*

This is how she ends up with a group of young people occupying an elegant but vacant villa with beautiful grounds not too far from the restaurant.

We're thrust in medias res into a group of 11 people that's formed a kind of makeshift commune dedicated to sending its members to public places pretending that they are retarded and sometimes also somewhat physically disabled. (They call what they do "spassing about.")

There's no getting around that many audiences will be offended by such behavior, but the group's intent is not to insult those physically or mentally challenged in any manner of degree but, rather, to disturb middle-class types as much as they possibly can.

Much of this behavior is unexplained, repetitive and seemingly pointless, but eventually where the film is going becomes clearer. There is a great deal of improvisation of the unself-conscious kind, and all 11 of the film's principals clearly must have reached deep within themselves to make so powerful an impression on the screen.

Whether this "spassing about" actually accomplishes much for those the group targets is debatable, it clearly begins to show positive effects upon members of the group. In trying to stir up others out of their complacent, conventional existences, the group finds it has lots of fun making mischief. Its people start getting in touch with themselves and each other. People begin triggering authentic emotions in each other, yielding moments of tender bonding in the face of an increasingly technological society that tends to isolate individuals from each other.

*

The venture, so informal, so provisional in nature, is just not designed to last--it's more in the nature of an experiment than a totally committed way of life, despite the insistence otherwise of Stoffer, its natural leader. When a man, cold and determined, arrives to take home with him the daughter who had been experiencing schizophrenic behavior but now seems calm and content, the group begins breaking up, almost inevitably.

The time in short has come for these people to test their "inner spass"--to see whether they can hold on to the changes they feel within themselves when they reenter "normal" life. Gradually, the focus returns to Karen, as Susanne accompanies her back to the life she dropped out of so abruptly and, as it turns out, so understandably.

A film that has seemed rambling to the point of numbness has, in fact, already begun unobtrusively to gather focus and build tension and suspense as Karen, more significantly than all the others, approaches her moment of truth.

Interestingly, rather than cut his film to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating, von Trier simply blacked out genitals in the film's more frolicsome moments, which actually works as an amusing critique of censorship.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality and nudity, and for language. Times guidelines: Language, adult themes and situations.

'The Idiots'

Bodil Jorgensen: Karen

Jens Albinus: Stoffer

Louise Hassing: Susanne

Nikolaj Lie Kass: Jeppe

A USA Films release of a production of Zentropa Entertainment2, ApS, and DR TV Danish Broadcasting Corp. produced by Svend Abrahamsen in co-production with Liberator Productions S.a.r.l., Le Sept Cinema, Argus Film Produktive, VPRO Television, Holland, ZDF/ARTE. Writer-director-cinematographer Lars von Trier. Producer Vibeke Windelov. Executive producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen. Editor Molly Malene Stensgaard. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.

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