Thursday, March 11, 2004

More von Trier

In my eruption of comments on DOGVILLE I left out some things that I'd meant to say regarding Kidman's acting and a scene in the back of a truck. I'll save those for another time since I caught tonight's two entries in the Lars von Trier retrospective.

First up was THE IDIOTS, the controversial 1998 Dogme 95 film in which a group of people go around acting like they're mentally retarded, "spassing" as they call it. Von Trier so loves to pull the rug out from under his audience, and he does it again here.

My initial impression is that THE IDIOTS is an allegory for the death of communism. The apparent group leader Stoffer decries bourgeois things, pillories fellow Idiots who hang onto aspects of middle class life, and screams "fascist" at a councilman who wants the group's communal home to be considered part of a different district. The Idiot ideals are shown to work within their bubble of existence, but outside of their sphere, the philosophy looks foolish and offensive.

Von Trier has gone out of his way to rub our noses in the Idiots' behavior while also subverting it. We may laugh along with their refusal to conform to what society deems proper, but von Trier is slowly hoisting the Idiots and the complicit audience by its own petard. He aims to shock too. Had the film been released with a rating, it most assuredly would have received the NC-17, although the nudity is not here for titillation.

Made in accordance with Dogme 95, THE IDIOTS effectively uses the rules that demand naturalism in cinema. It's a crudely made film, with herky jerky handheld camerawork that often goes out of focus and an intentional sloppiness that, on a couple occasions, catches the boom microphone in the shot. I wouldn't call it pleasant to watch, but after von Trier puts all his cards on the table, I realized I had a certain admiration for his persistence of vision. THE IDIOTS isn't on the level of his best work--it's too slapdash and inconsistent--but in transforming the film from a piece of empty provocation into a political critique, von Trier demonstrates his command of the medium.

ZENTROPA was the second half of the bill. This dream-like film sends its American protagonist of German heritage to post-World War II Germany to take a job as a sleeping car conductor. Leopold refrains from taking sides but finds himself caught between them. Jesus' statement in Revelation about preferring that one be hot or cold rather than lukewarm informs the film, as Leopold proves himself worthy of being spewed out.

A paranoid mix of noir, Hitchcock, and the occasional surrealist flourish, ZENTROPA is like a nightmare from which one cannot awake. Max von Sydow's hypnotic narration implores Leopold to go deeper. Even though he refuses, he cannot avoid being dragged down.

ZENTROPA is mostly in black and white, an appropriate visual theme considering its demand for commitment to an ideology. Von Trier uses color sparingly and strongly, dabbing it into the frame to highlight blood in the water or pallid skin tones.

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