Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Thomas Vinterberg, "Dear Wendy".

Years ago I was lucky to discover a film called Celebration (1998, alt. title= Festen). It was the debut 0f Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who had signed on to the Dogme 95 manifesto along with Lars Von Trier. Their movement eschewed common commercial techniques and equipment such as soundtracks, outside props, artificial lighting, and fancy cameras. Some thought their movement pretentious, but much of the work produced by affiliated members was startlingly inventive and compelling. Celebration was one of my alltime favorites. Raucous energy and bitter humor distinguished its story of perverse family dynamics. I was resolved to watch out for any future Vinterberg production.

Evidently I missed entirely his immediate follow-up... It's All About Love (2003), which starred Joaquin Pheonix and Claire danes. It's supposed to be a vaguely sci-fi meditation upon relationships at a time of social collapse. I'll certainly make the effort to track it down. But in the meantime, I became aware of another Vinterberg feature entitled Dear Wendy (2005). I had it on my wishlist for a while before purchasing it, and I have finally gotten around to actually watching it.

Dear Wendy stars Jamie Bell, Mark Webber and Bill Pullman in a fable set in some archetypal small town in the US. Ironically, the largely American cast was shipped to a set entirely built from scratch in Denmark. Von Trier wrote the script, and lends a stilted sensibility to the portrayal of American youth. Bell (who despite his ordinarily-thick British absent, convinces us that he is a typical Midwesterner) delivers his lines with conviction... but somehow can't quite make the dialogue sound truly authentic. That has largely to do with the writing, which clearly reflects a foreigner's conception of how Americans might talk. Like Kafka's Amerika, Dear Wendy has the subtle absurdity of a film about the perception of a place not yet visited. While the setting and characters are vaguely American, something is clearly just a bit off.

A small gang of "loser" young adults decide to accentuate their innate pacificism by carrying concealed handguns. They make a secret clubhouse in an abandoned mine complex, and devise elaborate rituals and costumes to mark their identity as "Dandies". Their philosophical ideas about gun ownership are dubious at best, and of course lead them into tragedy. Having said that, it is clear that Von Trier and Vinterberg are at least ambivalent about handguns. There are many elements of fetishism in the way gun ownership is presented. I don't believe that the filmmakers had any particular message in mind for the viewer to take away. While this doesn't bother me, it certainly seems to be putting some reviewers off. If you value a clear message in your entertainment, then this is not the movie for you. If you want to see a fresh perspective on guns in America... give the Danes a chance.


Note: This is NOT a Dogme 95 entry. There is much visual trickery and soundtracking. It seems like Von Trier and Vinterberg have tired of their toys.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Jeff said...

Thanks for the review - "Dear Wendy" has been on my list for a while, and I wondered how it turned out. Write something about the 2003 Vinterberg film if you find it. You're right that Von Trier adds something 'stilted' to the films he does now -- though "Dancer in the Dark" and "Zentropa" are all-time favorites of mine, his recent ones are, um, a bit screechy and dominated by their point of view of the 'American'.

10:20 AM  
Anonymous Michael Breen said...

I found "Dear Wendy" to be really awful. I had high hope for it, too, based on the trailer. There seemed to be no logic whatsoever governing the character's motivations towards the end of the film.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Mike,

Like many of the movies I enjoy, I felt I had to suspend my disbelief, and simply appreciate it for what it was. I knew ahead of time not to expect the actions of the characters to make much sense. They rarely do in fables. What I did enjoy was its absurd originality.

4:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff here again. Just finished Dear Wendy -- I have to, unfortunately, agree with Breen here and say that this film is miserably bad. Festen, Zentropa, Dancer in the Dark -- all great films, but what the hell made these two think they could get away with such a film?

One reviewer says that, if you are interested in criticism of guns in America, or at least analysis of them, rent Elephant or Bowling for Columbine. Yup.

On a side note, Jamie Bell also stars in another not-so-great film: ¨The Chumscrubber¨. Poor guy.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Jeff,

While I wouldn't say that "Dear Wendy" was a particularly good movie, I will restate my conviction that it is original, and that it didn't bore me. As I said in my review, there wasn't a cogent analysis of guns... but I don't consider that a failing of the film. With reactions like "really awful" and "miserable bad", I have to wonder what you guys were expecting to see. The film was confounding... but not (in my opinion) awful or miserable. I'd reserve those qualifiers for 95% of the Hollywood films that people seem to fall all over themselves to praise.

And while I would agree with you that "Chumscrubber: was "not great", I will say that I enjoyed watching it, all the way through. It was certainly better than "American Beauty", which won Oscars (not that it's any real indicator of quality... but jeez, try to get through that again now). I wrote a review for it on the blog.

6:56 PM  

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