Thursday, January 12, 2006

DVD Review: Dear Wendy

Lars Von Trier misfires in the Thomas Vintherberg-directed Dear Wendy

The Dandies in Dear Wendy

After the original and Brechtian Dogville, Lars Von Trier turned his attention once again to a stylised vision of America in Dear Wendy, which was directed by his Dogme pal, Thomas Vintherberg, the man who gave the world Festen (1999) one of the defining films of the 1990s. While Dogville worked because it was unabashedly minimalist and stagey, and thus allowed the audience to construct their ideas independently of Von Trier, Dear Wendy fails because it's not either artificial or realist enough, and the result is rather dull and half-baked. Dear Wendy is an schematic look at American culture through a hyperreal story set in an American town that is based on our accumulated collective memories of American iconography drafted from film history rather than reality. Carson McCullers' books do a better job at portraying that sort of southern gothic universe.

Dear Wendy is narrated by Jamie Bell's voice-over as his character Dick, a lonesome young man living in the stagey, self-contained Estherlope. The narration is based on a letter Dick has written to Wendy, his pearl-handed six-shooter. Dick is part of a group of pacifists comprised of Mark Webber, Alison Pill, Chris Owen and Michael Angarano. Together they form the Dandies, a group of misfits clad in Victoriana who spend their time practising with and idolising their guns.

Von Trier and Vintherberg try to create a parody of America, a psychotic, delusional country that believes that guns can promote peace, but which of course only leads to violence and death, as it happens at the end of the film during a shoot-out against Bill Pullman's sheriff's men. Most of the world and liberal America knows about the dangers of oil-thirsty, gun loving fundamentalist America that likes to speak in tongues and carry fire arms.

This is the problem of the film. The Danish Dogme duo are simply stating the obvious in Dear Wendy and they do so with a thick layer of pretension. They need to brush up on their politics if they want to add a significant contribution to the anti-violence, anti-war discourse. I was also disappointed with the content of the interview given by Von Trier and Vintherberg as one of extra features on the DVD - their postulations had the depth of a foundation media studies discussion group. Besides, their view of race and masculinity in the film is simplistic to say the least, and they seem to be in thrall of an MTV-style idea of youth; the film's occasional insertion of graphics often seems like ill-judged attempts at being cool.

Still, Dear Wendy does not erode my admiration for Trier and I hope he will restore his wonderful reputation with the upcoming Manderlay. It's recommendable on the basis of his and Vintherberg's past credits, but it will be remembered as a lapse in their filmography.

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