(c) 2012 by James Clark
In The Devil, Probably, Robert Bresson examines how headstrong and lost bright students can be. Moreover, the fascination of such a plummet is revealed to be due in great measure to a hunger to coincide with priorities embodied in an unusually assertive advocate of a life of inquiry, in accordance with the successes of that rationality stemming from Plato’s Academy. Whereas the academic trappings of that film are never in doubt—even while he places himself in the firing line dispensing his demise, the protagonist rattles on donnishly, “Shall I tell you…—they slowly creep up on us in a film, namely, Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998), taking upon itself Bresson’s problematic of clannish young intellectuals demonstrating what a formidable nuisance they can be, as organized for sustaining (far beyond school days) an inflected fealty to an antiquated moment of history. Both films place special emphasis upon the irony that their little Lost Patrol is spurred on, by charismatic leadership, to bruit hither and yon that they are headed for reality never before cresting in that way. (In fairness, both rebellions do touch upon innovation, to absolutely no effect.)
Whereas Bresson adopts an antiseptic narrative (as bending to the hegemony of rational factuality) never betraying for a moment the slightest shred of carnal pulse (an enervation embellished with wryly induced observations like, “God doesn’t reveal himself through mediocrity”)—and counting upon an eccentric thread of metaphor to allude to such renegade manoeuvres—von Trier (far less wedded than Bresson to modest income; and far more intent upon staging incipient cloudbursts to rain upon underwhelming parades) plants within the swarming, comprising the energies of The Idiots, a protagonist, Karen, who is not at all a co-ed (being a 30-something adult with clearly no stake in making waves) and who becomes caught up in the studious idiocy by reason of happening to be at one of the sites where the swarmers’ unusual but hardly unconventional exercises take place.
Sitting alone at a restaurant table, being browbeaten, by an officious waiter in a tux, into ordering mineral water rather than “the faucet,” she becomes startled by, first, a grotesquely awkward and noisy man being fed by a woman, and then another man having to be tended to by her, because he embarks on a crying jag. The first patient begins lurching about, as if he were a seal, calling to diners, “Hi! Hi! Hi!” This approach occasions some discomfort from those thinking to have a relaxing time; but he approaches Karen, putting his face close to hers, touching her face with his hand, and she shyly expresses gentle care, as if she were dealing with a baby. The waiter tells the woman in charge of these unwelcome entities, “You must keep them under control.” This seems to drive the invalids to louder, more aggressive action, and they eventually spill out to the parking lot. In the course of this disruption, Karen offers to help with one from that handful, and before she knows it she’s held fast by him, the normal lady shouting, “Stoffer, let go!” However, Karen somehow gets dragged into their taxi with them. In tending to the weepy one, the solid overseer tries to comfort him by saying, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Nothing is happening;” and with that latter phrase her endeavor goes from banal safety report to an adult-child to coverage of the outer limits of this agitation. This woman is named Susanne, and, along with Karen, her critical discernment of this bizarre behavior sustains a balancing process within a pervasive descent into disintegration (offsetting the kind of pall so difficult to engage in Bresson’s Devil).
Once underway with the retreat from the mellow restaurant, the two men, who seemed so tense and disturbed, smile at each other and burst out laughing. While the one Karen had accompanied was pawing her before getting into the cab, Susanne angrily shouted, “Stoffer, I’ve had enough!” As the boys were just about to jump into triumphant laughter, she had looked back from the front seat with embarrassment and anger. With the onset of their triumph, she snarls, “I don’t think it’s funny!” The boys seem a bit apologetic, but Stoffer argues, “What the hell could we do? That lunch would have cost a fortune.” (Karen had opted for a plain salad, telling the waiter, “It [the menu] sounds lovely. But I’m afraid I can’t afford it.”) Bringing the matter down to the level of frat boys at harmless play (like shoplifting), he brings Susanne back on board, her cute face lighting up with a mischievous smile. (Countering this lark was, therefore, situated as being virtually precluded by a compound of class war, ageism and anarchy [this latter aspect rushed into play at the outset of The Devil, Probably].) Out of this crisp counter-attack, Stoffer politely tells a vaguely humiliated and very confused Karen, “Don’t worry…”
To further isolate her presence amidst that self-satisfied hostility, there is an abrupt cut to a seminar of sorts, discussing Karen’s participation in some further manoeuvres, this by way of the scenario’s slow dawning upon us that a spate of dysfunctional-pretending performances is being monitored, analyzed and graded by some kind of college. In almost post-mortem mode (or, at least, post-program mode), talking heads refer to Karen’s having been “the last to join the group;” and to her nebulous involvement with it—“I think she’d have joined anything.” An incident at a factory is referred to as being in the past, while for us it is imminent. This fast-forward shift serves to have us especially attend to her contentious responses to the factory event, and the many others that follow. The nature of her malaise is given some bite from the outset by the report of another of the group—a donnish type with horn-rimmed glasses, smoking a pipe and sporting a deep, lecture-ready voice—“She was right when she said, ‘You’re poking fun.’”
On, then, to the actual experience of the field trip by supposed brain-damaged innocents—the whole class, this time—to a manufacturer of an insulating product called “Rockwood” (its name evoking both ruthless obduracy and warming accommodation). In face of the Human Resources spokesman’s sterling patience in providing what he would have supposed to be useful stimulation to group members who would never become customers (though perhaps cued by his boss that such generosity might pay off in involvement from the staff and Board), the already questionable pranksters treat him and us to smart-ass simulations of unintentional disruption and infantile fear (the tour guide shooting a handgun to demonstrate the durability of the product providing them with a golden opportunity to, with impunity, grotesquely ridicule his interests and the whole operation of the plant as linked to a hated effort in productivity—perhaps lacking finesse and wit, but perhaps also given over to modest attainments of equilibrium). Karen’s being on the periphery of that invasion, looking strained and glum, comes about, then, as a palpable respite from the omnipresent toxicity of an unmistakable (and unwitting) developmental shortfall (retardation) on the part of the registered participants. (The guide asks them to identify which of two graphics of a house has been blessed by Rockwood, and of course they choose to prefer the unendowed construct. In the course of engaging this nonsense he gamely encourages them in terms of, “That was almost right… Rather a lot [voted for Example B].” Rather than enjoy and credit this funny kindness under pressure, they exit like drunken pillagers, one of them taking the wheel of their van and crashing about the parking lot and storage areas.) On the road home, they sing, with frat house, acrid bonhomie, “We have a driver who is a nutter!” After a while, Stoffer asks a clearly perturbed Karen, “What do you think?” She smiles politely and states, “I don’t think it was very funny.” “Why not?” he complains. Still smiling shyly, she, like the guide at the factory, politely tries to make headway, with, “You poke fun…” Stoffer looks away glumly, a bit nonplussed, and then he grabs the hat of a colleague, a move locating his venture in the Sixth Grade. By way of higher education face saving, he makes the rhetorical gesture, “They’re the ones who poke fun.” Fearing he might elaborate in ways she’s already heard too often, Susanne, who once again had to be called upon (Karen turning down the job) to pretend to be an adult, tells him, “Stoffer, cool it!”
That night there is more analysis of the day’s production, a particularly boyish figure, Jeppe, coming in for some of Stoffer the Whip’s harsh measures for the sake of some kind of comprehensive efficacy in that group of supposedly critical, independent thinkers. “He wasn’t there… You should fucking well play along!” Amidst candlelight and many bottles of wine, Karen nearly fades into the shadowy wall of the country estate that serves as the headquarters of this dubious research team. By means of that juxtaposition we are accorded a clear focus upon the irony that this improbable, melancholy and frail hanger-on to a cadre of extravagant exponents of self-compromise and hostility has begun to mobilize her own kind of research, far removed from (yet linked to, in a volatile way) the general playing along. (In this she becomes a less assertive variant of Bess, in Breaking the Waves.) The not immediately apparent emotional generosity of her hosts surfaces memorably during a raid upon a public swimming pool, ideal, of course, for offending normal modesty. Susanne, Jeppe and a few others teach her to float, assuringly introducing her to her own buoyancy, and caressing her lovingly, eliciting from her both smiles and tears. Prior to the general meeting in the dark, she had anxiously dialled a number, hearing a man ask tensely if it was she, and then she had hung up, without saying anything, and cried bitterly. At this point we only know that she has embarked upon a sharp and painful departure from previous conventional domesticity. Rather than elaborate upon that suspenseful aspect of her actions, the film prefers to show her winning, gentle and generally unfathomable exertions within the shadowy project she stays rather ambivalently and ineffectively fixated upon, that is, within an insistent context dominated by figures not merely odious but crashingly boring. (Door-to-door sales of ridiculously scrappy craftwork and cruelly toying with a politically correct prospective buyer of their pad, which Stoffer has been assigned by his uncle, the owner, to sell, continue to make the time pass slowly.) As such we have cinematic architecture the design of which will surely sicken and bore most of the paying customers. (Not quite as financially suicidal as The Devil, Probably but flirting with the latter’s pervasive neglect nonetheless.) Only if the antithetical energies of Karen, and of Susanne and one other figure, can gain some traction for an attentive viewer does von Trier have a serious communication. (His Dollarama ambiance in accordance with the so-called Dogme of astringency, to convey the sensuous deadness against which the dramatic intentions collide, represents yet another shackle with which our Houdini-like auteur seeks to score heavily on the cult circuit he might—in view of this movie in particular—have wanted to distance himself from.
That much said, for those of us trusting someone putting our feet to the fire in this way, The Idiots is a thrilling and most beautiful experience. In the course of reinforcing the modest sanity emanating from the generally aggrieved actions of Karen and Susanne, von Trier brightens things up by giving us to understand that he knows full well how the putatively saintly Robert Bresson jazzed up his cast of wooden smart kids with a non-reader of poetry and a “real stinker,” Mike Hammer (this going all the way over to the most wrong side of the tracks, namely, Mickey Spillane [tempered, to be true, by smart guy, A.I. Bezzerides]). One of the Junior High wannabes is named Axel, and he comes in for romantic pestering by Katrine who dotes on him the way Mike’s Velda did, and who has about as much enthusiasm for the brat-fest as Velda had for “the Great Whatzit” that car-guy Mike was hooked on. “I thought this spassing about was pathetic!” (To Stoffer she [as we are about to discover her corporate smarts, particularly in gauging talent] levels combatively, “You think very highly of yourself.”) Whereas Mike is pretty good-natured about Velda’s practical side and eventually races to her side in time to be vaporized with her by an atomic bomb, you’d have to say Axel is revealingly different. He tells Katrine, “You’re the most vicious cunt I’ve ever come across,” hardly the casual register Mike occupies throughout. This being a film wanting us to get the cool nuances of Kiss Me Deadly but also wanting us to seriously squirm in recognition that the natives are far from friendly and will not likely change, much more tough medicine intervenes before we catch up with Axel and Katrine in a trajectory departing (though not escaping) the madhouse. (On running into this thread, are we to notice that Karen’s entry into the taxi at the outset, though not exactly a rerun of Mike’s, “Get in!” could be setting the stage for her being a version of Christina, escaped from a mental hospital and prone to entanglement with geeks running with subversion on behalf of a precious and abstruse humanitarian muse?) One day Axel is dressed in a suit and tie, just the way design-maven Mike would regard as apt, and he’s about to drive off in an expensive car (white, but not a convertible) when Katrine voices displeasure noticeably falling short of the maturity and wit in both Velda’s and Christina’s demurrals, which he found rather charming: “You look like a dickhead in that.” Though the strangely charged pressures of their retreat induce reflexive contempt toward adult self-maintenance practices and zeal for schoolyard social engineering, soon Katrine pops up at Axel’s ad agency office, looking like a businesswoman and blithely countermanding the initiatives Axel had cobbled together for a client manufacturing baby food. Dipping in and out of babyish spassing squeals (also sounding like erotic consummation), she incites Axel to throw her out (which he does; but not before she’s walked off with his credit card). You’ll perhaps recall that in Kiss Me Deadly (an extraordinarily useful little structure) Mike and Velda operate a divorce service whereby they have (photographed) sex with the two parties to a divorce settlement, thus precipitating a bidding war to destroy the incriminating photo), the deeper pockets carrying the day. (Here the contention has to do with Axel’s work on behalf of a notion of “child food” to obviate the notion of “baby food.”) Soon Katrine is using that card to buy champagne and caviar for the party animals; and Axel is back at the commune’s quality control center, undergoing a cross-examination about his unacceptable denial of having sex with her. But that he and she were in transit at all is a wake-up call to us, being slowly suffocated by the emission of crude stupidity having, remarkably, found a quorum, tornado-level malignancy capped off by Stoffer’s brief and very small lecture to Karen who has asked, “How can you justify acting like idiots? I would just like to understand… Why I’m here…” Babbling right through the enormous and subtle difficulty she (as would poetry reader, Christina, and her concern, as contained in her final words, “Remember me…”) touches upon with that last phrase, he confidently proceeds, “They’re [his recruits are] searching for their inner idiot. What’s the good of a society that gets richer and richer, when it doesn’t make anyone happier? In the Stone Age, all the idiots died. But nowadays it doesn’t have to be like that. Being an idiot is a luxury; but it is also a step forward. Idiots are the people of the future.” On beholding that underworld entity in all his vapid and self-congratulatory glory, we are, once again, apprised of the consistency and intensity of von Trier’s alert as to the viral nature of public life. His films acutely and urgently disclose the workings of shabbily prepared and appointed authorities holding sway over gullible followers, dismayingly quick to adopt sleazy ravings in lieu of working things out for themselves. A string of Mr. Wrongs, ranging from the randy husband in Breaking the Waves, the sweetheart cop in Dancer in the Dark, the tepid morale expert in Antichrist, and the good news scientists in Melancholia, perform not only acts of virulent destruction but also exposures of a readiness to tolerate and encourage their aberration. In light of this preoccupation, we should begin to discern in Karen not simply her bewildered soundness but the makings of a disastrous unsoundness.
The incident about a brave new world of idiocy parallels the gradual meltdown of Stoffer’s kingdom. Ironically, as the group begins to shatter from the weight of its own impertinent grossness, Karen, energized by the kindnesses held out to her by the other passengers, begins to take up spassing in ways akin to a novice joining a dicey yoga class, with a premium resting upon its overture to overlooked space rather than serial assault. Stoffer’s uncle (as mentioned), the owner of the house they’re based in, charges his nephew with overseeing the sale of the property (which of course he very predictably and smugly sabotages). While that power figure from a supposedly obsolete world tries to throw around some weight and conveys his incredulity about the way the live, Karen maintains, “We’re so happy here!” When the group comes across some blameless retardates (with Down ’s syndrome), Karen cries with a mixture of joy and grief, and the others in her class believe her to be finding her inner idiot (grace [with its implication of engaging the world of carnal entities] supposedly welded to infantile insularity). As she calms down one of the materially chaotic idiots by standing close to him and gently stroking his back, much as she would do with a restless baby (while the other clan members scatter—one having a cry in the house, insisting on being left alone; another getting out his camera and being angrily screamed at by Stoffer), we are once again drawn to Karen’s distinction in the midst of rampant self-centeredness—namely, her never losing sight of the equivalency of the actions of others. After another of Stoffer’s guerrilla assaults (upon bikers at a bar, leaving Jeppe with them to be assisted in peeing) she asks that inventive leader whose anger level has begun to climb, “It’s so lovely here. Why so much getting at people?”
Katrine (now that we know her to be an affluent promotions expert with expensive tastes) is (catching up once again) seen stocking up on champagne and caviar at a grocery store—she clearly seeing a need to lift morale at that peculiar terrorist redoubt. Stoffer insists the caviar be gobbled childishly, and soon several of them are smearing it all over their face. Karen is quietly anxious about this travesty within a reflective endeavor she has found to be playable. “That’s expensive stuff…There are people starving…” Stoffer, as ever, quick on the draw, addresses her much as the hated ecology prof sent Charles and Michel on their way, in Devil, “There aren’t any people starving [just the occasional delayed check from those damn bankers who must also foot the bill for those with grandiose inner idiots]. That’s the whole trick.” In face of this hopeless impasse nearby, she asks to use the phone to make a long-distance call. Only much later do we come to see who she has called; but here it is the impulse to reach out to possibly appreciative others which is tracked. Then Stoffer the oracle goes into a palpably unseemly, pathological frenzy in assaulting a local government bureaucrat (imparting advantages to be drawn upon for group homes such as his), taking off all his clothes and shrieking at the official pulling away in his car. To ease him back into some semblance of sanity, the group proposes to run a birthday celebration for him and he advises, “It’s not my real birthday” (to which we might note that the passage of years will do nothing for his maturity). True to form as an avatar of judgment and a gauge of classy taste, he proposes a “gang bang”—Karen therewith heading for another room; and there they are, plugged together, like the legs of a centipede, rubbing it in that such insectile energies are firmly entrenched in world history. (The run-up to this joyous occasion provides a bit of clarity about the youngish but not for the most part college-age character of the definitely college-incited platoon. Stoffer looks over the group scattered about the living room and asks the pipe-smoker, at work on some notes, “Will it result in a doctorate?” “Maybe,” is the rationally measured expression of energy on paper. Then the boss goes after an “art teacher.” “And you feel you’ll be a better artist if you go a teeny bit mad?… You’ve no bloody talent, at any rate!” Katrine, seeming more corporate by the minute, wraps up her less than excellent workshop (others to follow) with, “It isn’t the way I expected it. Your pathetic little spassing bit is the only thing that matters to you.”
On the other hand, Jeppe and a truly college-age girl, Josephine (who had retreated in tears at the sight of the Down’s syndrome group), break away from the party and, beginning with those bird or dinosaur ticks, share some tenderness which she in particular seems illumined by, expressing joy as culminating from painful anxiety. Her dad arrives, announcing, “It takes nothing to make Josephine seriously ill.” Stoffer sniffs, “Obviously an outsider can’t see where it is.” And though we’re clearly on to his ineffectuality, there is the recent discovery of magic by that pair (on Josephine’s dad’s driving away with her, Jeppe hurls himself onto the hood of their car), to prevent the error of completely discrediting the premise of a range of rightness that mainstream history has fumbled.
That exit precipitates Stoffer’s shift from court jester to liquidation agency. He spins a bottle on the floor to send off the first dubious contrarian who must, according to him, prove he’s human by incorporating the wet-linen advent of spassing into the maintenance affairs of those outsiders disinclined to so obviously make asses of themselves. The bottle-bomb points to (who else?) Axel (whose real name comes up—by way of Katrine [in fact Benedikte, recalling, Edwige, the Ivy League patrician and dabbler into sensations, seen in Devil]—as Severin, evoking Kiss Me Deadly’s nemesis of Mike, Soberin). And, after some agonizing—and heckling by Katrine: “Your sow of a wife will just have to love your inner idiot”—he declares, “I can’t…I’ll go back to Mona and the baby” (perhaps not as off-putting as an atomic blast, but a setback nevertheless, in its implication that the inspiration for this venture [“Something Big”] would never again play even a bit part in his life). More bad news follows, when we are brought into a seminar room where the remaining conscripts (and non-diploma candidate, Karen) sit around a table with Adult-Ed classmates we never saw with them on manoeuvres—elderly ladies out to fill up the endless vacation hours of their retirement days with a casual study of painter, Henri Matisse (casual inasmuch as one, presumably typical, of those worthies explicitly imagines they’ll be dealing with obelisks when in fact, speaking of Matisse, the interest is with odalisques). The young art teacher is the passive butt of Stoffer’s recent denunciation (and the guy who went for his camera when the Down’s people arrived). He also was the second bottle spin target, charged with making waves in an inert surround. Tentative and hangdog in his presentation, he mumbles something about Matisse’s indebtedness to the iconoclastic poetry of Charles Baudelaire. “He knew of his effect on the bourgeoisie…He was certainly provocative and full of surprises…” Stoffer strides up to the lectern and hisses to the nominal leader of the program, “You love this middle-class crap!” Then he quite fully reveals how miserably prepared he is to engage a sophisticated sensibility like that of Matisse, whose sense of consequential change far exceeds the shoddy clap-trap he takes for his mantra. “We didn’t come to hear about a French faggot and his calligraphy.” His maladroit mix-up as to calligraphy when it should have been collage is only the tip of the iceberg here. Sure, he could bully the academic wimp (who at least twigged onto the embarrassment of spassing)—“Stoffer is right. I had no pride in my inner idiot. I wasn’t good enough…” But in carelessly assimilating Baudelaire’s premium upon intoxication and Matisse’s having preferred not to be so disconnected from the general population, Stoffer comes to us fully unmasked as a charismatic nobody, one of many such specimens of assertive know-nothings, too cowardly to do any serious work and gathering to his distemper similarly lazy disciples.
Back at the hideout, a general evacuation takes place, Stoffer sitting on the floor, too depressed to look at and shake the hand of one of his erstwhile followers. Karen, on the other hand, looks them all in the eye, smiles warmly and states, “I’d just like to say how happy I have been here” (a bit questionable in view of her general disposition of being appalled by most of the events). She declares, “Being an idiot with you is one of the best things I’ve ever done… I believe I love you all.” (The only previous use of that word was by Josephine with reference to Juppe.) “It’s my turn to go home and see if I can become an idiot there…” If anyone is going to come out of this mess with something to offer, it has to be her. But not only has she taken to heart an abortive sensual angle; in citing (at that time of parting—a time of praising each one for what she regards as their strong suit) a clan member named Miguel (in other words, Mike) for his “beautiful eyes,” she signals missing the whole point of the factor coming to bear concerning the dangerous highway she’s travelling. “It may not be very pleasant,” she cautions, regarding the prospect of sharing a discovery of love as fastened to an initiative contorted with savagery so true to its author and so false to her. That much we can see going forward into the film’s last phase.
Along with Susanne, who is glad that she wanted her to accompany her to help steady her nerves, Karen takes us to her home and to a situation peculiar and trouble-fraught, to say the least. Her mother asks, “Where were you? We haven’t heard from you since you left, the day before the funeral?” Karen holds a photo of her infant son, and she cries. Susanne quietly cries out, “My pet!” and she holds her. Had Karen imagined that her gain of more resilient loving considerateness toward others (derived in the course of interaction with flakey but warm-hearted wanderers) could surmount the devastation of the family she had so abruptly nullified? How closely did her career, up to the point of being dragged into the orbit of Susanne and Stoffer, coincide with the latter’s viciousness? At a tension-filled reunion snack, Karen—who had promised to the dispersing course-snackers, “I’ll try to show this was worthwhile…”—goes for her mojo by drooling her cake all over her face, and she gets sharply slapped for those troubles by her husband, who won’t be on that job very much longer. Susanne, as always, quick to detour around the Death Valleys of non-stop trucking, gets them out of there by quietly bringing her perhaps not entirely pragmatic reasoning to bear upon Karen’s total (though perhaps not absolute) disarray. “That’s enough now, Karen…Shall we go?”
Though demonstrably unable to gain effective entry into the range of collage and odalisques (Rubenesque Susanne being to some indiscernible extent fluent with the odalisque dimension of Matisse), Karen (but somehow not her caring and sensible friend—also about to disappear forever, like the others?) has very definitely attained to the dangerous malaise that the work of Matisse and Baudelaire is all about.
In bringing to light so richly the constellation of the two women’s energies—right down to Karen’s susceptibility for infantile purity as a portal to equilibrium—The Idiots, with its highly charged Axel as implying an embrace of two rotary spheres (intimate and public), stands as a most worthy correspondent to the art of Bresson.