The Idiots – von Trier (1998)

(I will have to give away some plot.)

A woman, looking fragile and distrait, goes to a small restaurant and orders the cheapest thing on the menu. There is a mild kerfuffle at a table nearby as two mentally handicapped men, aged about 30, behave in a way that other diners find embarrassing. One of the men seizes the hand of the woman and won’t let it go. She lets him lead her out to the car which the woman who is looking after the two men is driving. He won’t let go. In a state of bemusement, she gets in and the car drives away.

Jens Albinus and Bodil Jorgenson in 'The Idiots'

This is the opening to Lars von Trier’s film (Danish), The Idiots. You could say that it challenges you from the off (e.g. how would you have reacted if you had been one of the diners?). However, more challenging still is the revelation that the two men are not at all handicapped, and are part of a communal group who regularly challenge members of society by pretending, very convincingly, that they are mentally handicapped, which they call ‘spazzing’ (the subtitles translate the Danish as ‘spassing’, but let that pass). So now how does the hoodwinked viewer feel? Certainly, uncomfortable. The woman in the restaurant, Ruth (Bodil Jorgenson), is drawn to the group, for reasons which we do not understand until the very end of the film (where there is a clever twist). The film continues throughout its length to challenge the viewer in the same way, revealing as it goes that the commune has broken up, and that we are looking back. The various male and female members of the commune turn out to have had very different motives in joining in the – what shall we call them? – pranks. The kingpin of the group (played by Jens Albinus) has a political agenda, and urges the others to ‘find their inner idiot’. Some of the group have personal, some ideological reasons for looking for this supposedly karmic state.

The encounters are various, including an encounter with various authorities, with people who believe themselves to be liberal and are tricked into believing that the house is for sale, and also with a group of Down’s Syndrome adults. At one point, in full role-play, one of them is left behind with a group of burly, heavily-tattooed bikers, who – the film hints – will threaten their temporary charge: in fact, they decide that what he needs is a pee, and they treat him with infinite respect and kindness. This scene is funny and touching.

Before going any further, you cannot fault the film-making. The director subscribed at that point to the ‘Dogma’ manifesto, which aimed for a kind of truth, in that everything had to be shot in 35mm, on a hand-held camera, with no music, no camera trickery (no dissolves, etc. etc.). In fact, it is one of the most astonishingly well-acted and well-edited films I’ve seen. It won several awards. You could hardly wish to see a more skilful piece of work (being provocative and Danish, there is a group sex scene which you could call gratuitous, but such scenes seem to go with the territory, and besides, it isn’t lingered on at all).

When it was shown at Cannes, the film critic Mark Kermode, who has made a career out of being bumptious and dismissive, and whose views I rarely like, and whose manner irritates me, had to be escorted from the showing after repeatedly shouting out that the whole thing was ‘merde’. I don’t know how far through the film he’d got. But he was right. It is brilliantly made, but it is ‘merde’. And that’s because it does exactly the opposite of what it purports to do: it patronises people who are mentally handicapped. We could argue that the characters do this, and that we could argue that my reaction is the kind with which the director would feel comfortable. We could, but it wouldn’t change my mind.

As a society, we are much better than we were at understanding, accepting and caring for those who have handicaps of any sort (one of the ways this has been achieved has been to accept that we all have handicaps, or that none of us do). It wasn’t always so. In 1973, between my first degree and my teaching diploma, I needed a job (I had just moved to Devon). I quite liked the idea of being a nursing assistant, but the adverts seemed to stipulate a minimum of 8 weeks, and I could only offer 6. However, there was one hospital, at Starcross (on the coast road to Dawlish), which would take me for 6 weeks. I was duly interviewed. The last question was ‘Have you ever worked with the mentally handicapped before?’ I couldn’t actually say it, but only at that point did I realise that it was a hospital – ‘hospital’ – for the mentally handicapped. So I just said ‘No’. The interviewer called a staff nurse in and said ‘Show him the worst’.

‘The worst’ was a kind of punishment block room, from which all furniture had been removed, and in which an apparently feral teenager was behaving in a way you might call berserk. He was not only mentally handicapped but profoundly disturbed. I was disturbed, too. ‘Not to worry,’ said the nurse, ‘you won’t have to deal with anyone like him.’ I spent six weeks helping with about twenty young boys, who slept in a dormitory not unlike those in which I had spent time at boarding-school. At that age (20), in a world which hid away these boys, most of whom had last seen a member of their family some years before, I went in with one false view and came out with it upturned. That view was that all mentally handicapped were essentially collective members of a single personality. I expect that sounds appalling, now. In about twenty-four hours, I realised that, as various as people are – kind, mean, loving, obtuse – the same applied to everyone with any kind of mental handicap. Some were more lovable than others. Everyone had their own personality. And very few of them were ill. (The hospital was closed a long time ago – it dated from 1864, when it was called ‘The Western Counties Asylum for Idiots’. I’ve only just discovered that.)

Not a very grand insight: but an insight that makes me think The Idiots, for all its skill, is without wit or intelligence. The plural in the title says it all. It is a terrible piece of stereotyping.

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3 Responses to The Idiots – von Trier (1998)

  1. Clare Harvey says:

    There’s an obituary in last week’s Economist about a chap called Bill Millin, who was the only bagpiper at the D-Day landings, and spent his latter years working as a mental nurse in Dawlish. I wonder if he was at the hospital in Starcross when you were there? He died on 17th August.

  2. I suspect he would have been at Langdon, which was a much more humane place.

  3. Terry says:

    I lived from 1960 – 1965 just along the road from the Western Counties Hospital with my parents and two brothers. Both my parents worked at the hospital and also Langdon near Dawlish. The house we lived in I believe was owned by the hospital and when the hospital was demolished our house went too. As young teenagers we met and got to know some of the inmates who were allowed out to make a trip to the local shops in Starcross. The whole area is now a modern housing estate but lots of the memory lanes around still are there. I agree with you by the way about Mr Kermode.

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