the idiots review

film by Lars Von Trier (1998)

Von Trier’s first contribution to the newly established Dogme 95 movement that would later spawn dozens of films born from the minds of Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, follows criteria outlined in a joint manifesto authored by the two directors.

Review by Aaron Jones | February 29, 2024

Depiction versus advocacy comes to mind when I think of The Idiots, leaving me feeling incredibly divided after viewing it. On the one hand, the film seems to serve as an experiment in social psychology both in its execution of what it’s relaying and its reaction to how people respond to it, creating a cinematic version of the Milgram experiment, if you will. Von Trier creates a controversial position, riffing on behaviors that are considered socially insensitive—the kind of mocking imitations we were taught not to engage in from an early age because of their demeaning and hurtful consequences to those who suffer from disabilities.


During a time when the social discourse on diversity and inclusion is at a zenith, the film can feel like a derogatory gesture meant to tantalize rather than depict. In an easy attempt to be left off the hook, it can feel more in the realms of irresponsibility rather than subversion. Some may ask about the purpose of the film and how the end might justify the means. In a way, Von Trier answers this with the film, demonstrating that he does not feel compelled to offer justifications or excuses that explain the blatant disregard for social mores and political correctness. I would assume those familiar with Von Trier wouldn’t expect anything else from such an open provocateur.

The Idiots (1998) by Lars von Trier
Railing against the nonsensical.

At times, The Idiots feels like an arthouse version of Jackass in its attempts to divide and offend. Coming off more like narcissistic performance art in the service of unconscious needs, it eventually goes deeper, revealing the differences between the ways human beings process grief, trauma, stress, and the pain of existence through extremely personal and unorthodox methods. It presents the possibility that some of us are searching for the bliss of ignorance amidst the pressures of an ever-growing stressful social structure or that some could embrace a form of infantilism or mock Down’s Syndrome as a way of abandoning all social and moral responsibilities.


Whereas infants and those with disabilities are bound by their developmental potential, perhaps the film’s protagonists are choosing to imitate them through a conscious regression to mental states characterized by freedom from the chains of a “rational” mind, which include our moral responsibility to repress the landscape of our unconscious in the service of adhering to social norms, and the suffocating rules and expectations of “society.”

Lars Von Trier on the set of the Idiots
Lars Von Trier on set of "the Idiots".

The tipping point of the film comes when the characters interact with people who actually have Down’s Syndrome and other disabilities, giving off the feeling of a cheap thrill attempting to expose the irony of interacting with those who may not be able to understand the mocking of their abilities, which, for me, lowered the film’s integrity exponentially.


Adding insult to injury, the film makes the people with disabilities the butt of a joke they are not privy to, leaving them unable to defend themselves, which comes off as a way to take something away from someone rather than to make a contribution to anything, especially art. It feels more like exploitation for the goal of entertainment.


Instead of focusing solely on the more problematic aspects of the film, if we examine The Idiots with an understanding that depiction does not necessarily translate to advocacy, I think it’s possible to find meaning beyond exploitation for the sake of entertainment and, perhaps, find some actual value within the film. I understand that by the mere suggestion of such a perspective, I am a hypocrite since there are plenty of films that I have judged harshly without entertaining the thought of their potential value despite their flaws. So, I am certainly not immune to what I am being critical of here. What I am left with is a provocative film about a collective counterculture exploring why we choose escapism over the pains of reality that challenged my perspective on many things.

Aaron Jones


Reviewed and published by Aaron Jones. Based in California, he developed a passion for film from a young age and has since viewed over 10,000 films. Curently serves as a film critic at CinemaWaves, he has contributed to other publications as well. Feel free to follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.

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