Dear Wendy

Dear Wendy


Reviewed by: Themroc

Set during an unspecified time in an imaginary mining town somewhere (judging by the accents) in the American South, Dear Wendy relates, mostly in flashback, the story of miner's son Dick, a loner and misfit, who founds a club with like-minded outsiders called the Dandies. The Dandies are marksmen (and one woman) with sharpshooters - carriers of handguns but avowed pacifists dedicated to solidarity, flamboyance and self-improvement. "Think of it as a social experiment," Dick patiently explains to the doubtful would-be members at their inaugural meeting, "that'll help you become what you really are." All's well at first - the group's only girl even tells Dick that membership of the club has helped her grow breasts - until Dick is forced to take charge of Sebastian, the wayward black grandson of an old friend, and against his better judgement allows him into the group.

A collaboration between two of the founding members of the Dogme movement, Dear Wendy is one of those rare films where the force of the screenwriter’s personality is so strong that it overpowers, or at least confuses, the voice of the director. Written by Lars von Trier and directed by his protégé, Thomas Vinterberg, the film showcases many of the themes and ideas explored in von Trier's films. The mythical, unspecified location, which gives the film its allegorical overtones, recalls Dogville and, to a lesser extent, Breaking the Waves. The formation of a society of misfits and nonconformists as a social experiment is reminiscent of The Idiots. The staging of the action around a clearly mapped out location incorporates Dogville's Brechtian approach, alluded to directly by Vinterberg through the bird's eye view of the town which the Dandies use to coordinate their final mission. In its portrait of the excluded refugees from a society's underclass attempting to kick back, Dear Wendy also carries a thin subtext of Marxism (and attendant anti-Americanism) discernible in much of von Trier's work.

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Vinterberg's first two films are so different that it's difficult to find unifying concerns that could help identify an authorial signature. Certainly, there seems little to connect Dear Wendy with his startling feature debut Festen, other than the involvement of fellow Dogme signatory von Trier. Not that this diversity would necessarily be a bad thing in itself if Dear Wendy wasn't such a complete mess. Rather than a meeting of two brilliant, talented and provocative minds, the impression left is of a script so thin it barely resembles an outline, helmed by a director completely ill suited to its execution. Vinterberg has stated that his approach to filmmaking is far more intuitive than the more didactic von Trier's, and perhaps this is the reason for Dear Wendy's failure. After all, von Trier's singular vision doesn't lend itself easily to reinterpretation. The parallel universes he constructs for his allegories tend to be so precise that any tinkering or errors of judgement would lead to a collapse of the audience's suspension of disbelief.

Certainly Vinterberg's decision to rewrite the characters, all originally in their mid-thirties, as teenagers seems completely wrongheaded. He has argued that the teenage years are when people form gangs like the Dandies, but this robs the group of an intellectual and philosophical manifesto worth fighting and dying for, and replaces it with a more immature need for escapism. As a result, the basis for the Dandies' code of ethics is never properly explained and the central contradiction between the allure of guns and the Dandies' professed dedication to non-violence is never grappled with.

Nor has Vinterberg effectively mastered his idiom. Dear Wendy's mythical American setting often seems confused and the details incongruous. For instance, the cars and (some of) the costuming appear to be contemporary, but the architecture and much of the art direction feels like an attempt to set the film in a bygone era. Anthony Dod Mantle's photography compounds this sense of dislocation by lending the picture an almost sepia period hue. In addition, much of the plotting, particularly towards the end, requires an assumption about this society's value of human life that's more a reflection of the days of the wild frontier (or at least Hollywood's interpretation of it) than contemporary small town America. The prevalent use of the Zombies' music (referred to by Dick as "old music" and played on a turntable) complicates things further, since Vinterberg has introduced something into the film's universe that comes from a clearly definable time and place in the "real" world.

However, although it's tempting to blame Dear Wendy's failure on the director's misinterpretation of promising material, the truth is that most of the problems lie in von Trier’s dreadful screenplay. Told in flashback by Dick in the form of a redundant love letter to his own gun (the eponymous Wendy), the film is so heavily voiced-over that there are only a handful of scenes where the characters and the drama are given room to breathe. Even Dick's character remains a largely hollow shell since, although he talks at us for almost the entirety of the film's running time, practically all of what he says is baldly descriptive.

None of the important plot points are properly dramatised. Instead, we are given unchallenged assertions and scenes loosely strung together for no other reason than to move the narrative and its characters in the direction demanded by the plot. There is no evidence of Dick's professed pacificism, where it comes from or what it means to him, so when this supposedly iron rule is tested, it is difficult to know what is at stake from the point of principle. Although we hear a couple of supporting characters mention marauding gangs that terrorise the townsfolk, since we never see them or get any hints, conversely, of their non-existence, we don't have a chance to judge whether this is evidence of the town's lawlessness or its inhabitants' paranoia. The central woman/gun metaphor embodied in the film's faintly ridiculous framing device is never properly explored beyond a vague misplaced jealousy regarding Sebastian's perceived prowess and intentions towards "her". The racial subtext only serves to make this seem all the more trite and immature. Finally, we are expected to take Dick's powers of persuasion and leadership, the growing bonds within the group and their farcical marksmanship on trust, just as we are expected to accept the illogical futility of their dimly motivated last stand.

Given von Trier's irreverence and perversity, is it possible that the whole thing is supposed to be a joke? But if so, at whose expense? It is possible that Vinterberg was drawn to the script following the commercial and critical indifference that greeted It's All About Love (his English language follow up to Festen). Perhaps he felt that collaboration with the more bankable von Trier would be his ticket to another hit. But one has to wonder why von Trier felt comfortable giving away material he felt had real potential. Could it be that he knew it was a dog and, stung by the praise heaped on Festen and the criticism (unfairly) heaped on The Idiots, handed it over so he could watch Vinterberg fall on his face for the second time in succession? In reference to Festen, Von Trier remarked ruefully in an interview, "I wanted people [for Dogme] who would be good - but some of them were too good". "But," pressed the interviewer, "surely you must be proud of Thomas". "Absolutely not," laughed von Trier. "He should be grateful, the bastard!"

But baseless conspiracy theories aside, a more likely explanation is that Dear Wendy is simply the result of a series of lapses in judgement, talent and taste by two gifted artists who should resolve to plough their own furrows from now on. I have no doubt that the brilliance Vinterberg flourished with such confidence in Festen will resurface at some point and that von Trier will continue to make films as innovative and provocative as his impressive back catalogue. However, fans of both directors should give this a wide berth.

Reviewed on: 13 Aug 2005
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Dear Wendy packshot
Allegorical story of guns and gun culture set in a mythical American mining town.
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Read more Dear Wendy reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray *1/2

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Writer: Lars Von Trier

Starring: Jamie Bell, Bill Pullman, Mark Webber, Michael Angarano, Danso Gordon, Novella Nelson, Chris Owen, Alison Pill

Year: 2005

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Denmark/France/Germany/UK


Sundance 2005

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