7.13.2012

My summer with Lars: "The Idiots" (1998)



While watching The Idiots last weekend, it occurred to me that it might be possible to read nearly all of LvT’s films as being about the primacy of some sort of bodily excess; bodies in vT’s films seldom behave, and are constantly sources of horror, discomfort, or disgust, both on the parts of the other characters and of the audience.  As a filmmaker who continually takes shots at all manner of controlling discourses (science, medicine, the law, religion), it’s fitting that vT be drawn to bodies that repeatedly confound those discourses, such as the supernatural bodies that haunt the hospital in The Kingdom or Bess’ sexually insatiable body in Breaking the Waves.  In The Idiots, he presents us with the spectacle of the disabled body, albeit mediated by the able bodies of the young Danish radicals who only play at disability.  The film takes place in a commune where members delight in “spazzing” (pretending to be disabled), often in public.  What this means, practically speaking, is that they assume an intensity of embodiment, to borrow a term from D. A. Miller—moaning, drooling, pissing, shouting, and crying at will.  Intensity of embodiment becomes the veritable sign of “idiocy” in the film: in its final scene, we suddenly realize that Karin (pictured above) has shifted into spaz-mode while visiting her family when chewed cake begins to ooze out of her mouth.  (The films, many of which adhere to the conventions of what Linda Williams has called "body genres," inspire an intensity of embodiment on the part of the audience as well.  I recall being reduced to a sobbing wreck by the end of Dancer in the Dark; I witnessed a fellow audience member visibly shaking during the final shots of Melancholia; and Roger Ebert has described seeing Georgia Brown flee a screening of Breaking the Waves in tears.)

vT’s “idiots” are motivated in part by a desire to make other people uncomfortable, as when they stage outbursts at a fancy restaurant and a public swimming pool.  But they’re also looking to “get in touch with their inner idiot,” which suggests that playing at disability becomes a form of psychic liberation.  As Linda Badley puts it, the goal is “to break through to some pure emotional truth, the ‘inner idiot’ lost beneath the urban professional façade.”  The same principle could be applied to vT’s films in general, which often facilitate a visceral form of contact with the audience in ways that can be both exhilarating and distressing (often both at the same time).  vT’s films assault the viewer with their intensity of embodiment—with their bodies that scream, cry, fumble awkwardly, puke, bleed, lash out, throw fits (one character in The Idiots runs naked through the street, yelling “Fascist!”; another throws himself on the hood of his girlfriend’s car).  In Antichrist, the body is rent altogether.  It makes sense that vT would be drawn, as he is, to Williams “body genres”: melodrama, horror, and pornography (I would also add comedy to that list.)  The Idiots marks von Trier’s first use of unsimulated sex, as an orgy breaks out among the members of the commune (adult film actors were used as doubles).  It looks ahead to the hard-core adult films released by vT’s production company, Zentropa, at the turn of the century, as well as to the lovingly rendered shot of the thrusting penis at the beginning of Antichrist.  News of his current project should reassure us that his bodies remain as out-of-control as ever: it’s reportedly an erotic drama in two parts, to be called The Nymphomaniac.   

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