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Foul Play: Thomas Vinterberg’s “Dear Wendy”

Foul Play: Thomas Vinterberg's "Dear Wendy"

Putting the nature and quality of his films aside for the moment, Lars von Trier, the jolly sadist Danish director and writer, is simply useful to have around. Like a brash, needling party guest, he starts conversations. Less committed interrogator than pathological provocateur, his films demand reaction. So long as the viewer is stirred, it doesn’t really matter if she or he is emotionally invested or morally repulsed (oftentimes it’s both); the party guest is tickled-and validated-from the “Ha! I made you look!” fulfillment of the ploy. And we keep looking and talking.

The problem is that Lars von Trier often asks his viewers to care more about his characters than he does. Flat, cruelly schematic roles are enlivened by sensitive performances (Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgard in “Breaking the Waves,” Björk and David Morse in “Dancer in the Dark“) but doomed in the end by von Trier’s puppetry. His trick is passing off the puppet’s hand as society, human nature, or America. He’s up to the same trick with his script for “Dear Wendy,” but from a further remove, with countryman Thomas Vinterberg (director of “The Celebration“) taking his own doomed stab at humanizing aphorism-addled strawmen of all-too-familiar arguments and ideas.

“Dear Wendy”‘s cleverest conceit is its updating of “Peter Pan”‘s Lost Boys to a gun- obsessed gang of mining-town misfits. Jamie Bell plays Dick, an orphaned loner who falls in love with a darling little handgun. He assumes the gun is a toy until his quiet, weapons-loving co-worker (Mark Webber) shows him its real power. They start a small club of non-violent shooters called The Dandies, who dress in frilly, baroque costumes and lovingly restore vintage guns that they secretly carry for “moral support.” Their avowed pacifism holds until Sebastian (Danso Gordon), a paroled black youth, joins the club and disrupts the peace, challenging Dick and the Dandies to do more than play with their pistols. With Dick’s delusional love letter serving as voice-over narration, dialogue that’s alternatingly vernacular and stilted, and a canned industrial backlot set design, the film disorientingly refuses to distinguish between realism and fantasy.

Rather than truly investigate either fantasy’s erotic charge or the real-world consequences of such lethal play, the filmmakers use ambiguity as cover for all manner of undercooked satire and childish taboodling. American flags are always flapping prominently, and at one point Dick is iconically flanked by both old glory and the Confederate stars and stripes. The Battle Hymn of the Republic horns in whenever unsubtlety is called for, and the Dandies awkwardly repeat “we’re pacifists” each time irony and allegory require broader hinting. The all-teen playground is infiltrated by only a few speaking adults, namely authoritative meanie Sheriff Krugsby (Bill Pullman), a Captain Hook stand-in with a George W. drawl who pops-up occasionally to grease the gears of the creaky plot and hammily hick it up to 11; Mr. Salomon (Teddy Kempner), a paranoid, nebbishy shopkeeper with a convenient, semitically-coded surname; and Clarabelle, Dick’s fawning black nanny in full-on Hattie McDaniel mode. Von Trier dares the viewer to take his stereotyping seriously, and then he tweaks, flips, and inverts type, but never enough to enrich signifying skin with full body. Sebastian isn’t the bad apple he at first seems, but he does have lessons in love and gun-caressing to teach Dick, not to mention a self-sacrificial heart of gold. Speaking at June’s Moscow International Film Festival, Vinterberg explained von Trier’s racial strategy as motivated by a desire to be politically incorrect (could there be a more hollow-not to mention callow-platform?), as well as indicative of his fascination and envy of “beautiful African men.” Vinterberg added, “Lars talks often of the size of Afro-American genitals.”

Vinterberg’s more empathetic touches are a welcome if jarring counterpoint. His camera stands far enough away to let his actors command their own space and he holds on faces -particularly Bell’s-long enough to hint at conflicted feelings. But invariably the ensuing line of recitative or superfluous dialogue makes the effort seem silly, even disingenuous. And most fatally, his sentimental touches in the finale only validate-rather than complicate-the script’s inevitable orgy of clichéd carnage. As a nasty little exercise in bad alchemy, “Dear Wendy” is something of a sequel to von Trier and Jorgen Leth’s “The Five Obstructions,” which had young master Lars prescribing various seemingly arbitrary limitations and complications for senior Leth’s series of “The Perfect Human” remakes. Like Leth, Vinterberg is a willing foil (and to some degree, tool), and in discussing the film in Moscow he used the von Triers–ian term “experiment” about as often as he soft-shoed around questions of race and anti-Americanism. While he can pass those bucks to the screenwriter all he wants, only the director is truly answerable for a botched experiment like “Dear Wendy.” That’s auterism. And that, rather than whatever it pretends to address about American gun culture, is what “Dear Wendy” most effectively reveals.

[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

A scene from Thomas Vinterberg’s “Dear Wendy.” Image courtesy of Wellspring.

Take 2

By Adam Nayman

Thomas Vinterberg knows how to talk out of both sides of his mouth. He told me so during an interview this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, where his “Dear Wendy” received its Canadian premiere. No surprise, then, that the film is a surprisingly articulate exercise in double-speak, critiquing America’s obsession with firearms even as it offers a consciously thrilling climactic shoot-out that honors not only “The Wild Bunch,” but also “Romeo Must Die.” Anyone who grumbles about this seeming contradiction is missing the point. It’s a comedy.

At least, I’m pretty sure it’s meant to be funny. It’s sometimes hard to tell with misdirection maestro Lars von Trier, who wrote the script. The cue is the voice-over, delivered by amusingly articulate meatbag-in-waiting Dick (Jamie Bell) in a flat, dear-diary sulk. Even more than von Trier’s “Dogville,” “Dear Wendy” is about the dangerous failure of language in the face of overpowering physical and emotional impulses: the gun-worshipping teens in “Dear Wendy” create a secret society based around Byzantine semantics (they’re ardent pacifists), and elaborate role-playing rituals. Their lunacy is predicated on their literacy-their wildness is explicitly Wildean, both in their hyper-articulate exchanges and choice of antiquated costumes and props-but they’re not so well informed. The best gag is Dick’s revelation that his childhood copy of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” had had the final twenty pages torn out.

It’s a wonderful metaphor for the sense of invincibility underpinning adolescence, and Vinterberg and von Trier milk it for all it’s worth. Their film mirrors Gus Van Sant‘s comparatively austere “Elephant” in that it cruelly telegraphs its bloodbath from early on, but where that film located its point of view in the absence of any clear opinion (and that’s not a criticism) “Dear Wendy” isn’t shy about diagnosing the more virulent strains of American culture. It’s a testament to Vinterberg’s direction that he manages both to vividly dramatize what must on the page read as bone-dry allegory and humanize von Trier’s typically cartoonish participants. (He’s a cutoff man for his screenwriter’s Olympian sense of detachment.) Of course, his investment in his characters makes their ultimate blaze-of-glory destruction all the queasier-it’s as uncomfortable, in fact, as a stone in your shoe. Which is, really, all these filmmakers have ever aspired to be.

[Adam Nayman, a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot, reviews films in Toronto for eye Weekly. He has also contributed articles to Saturday Night, Cinema Scope, Montage, and POV.]

A scene from Thomas Vinterberg’s “Dear Wendy.” Image courtesy of Wellspring.

Take 3

By Michael Joshua Rowin

Bring together the words “Lars von Trier” and “America” and the critical antennae go way up. That’s because the Danish enfant terrible’s cinematic statements about this country alternate between the stupid (“Dancer in the Dark”) and the profound (“Dogville“), even as his provocations seem calculated and misplaced. But now von Trier has entered the realm of the ridiculous with “Dear Wendy,” a film supposedly containing some sort of message about guns, kids, race, and, yes, America. Which isn’t to say that this von Trier-Vinterberg team-up doesn’t fascinate-in 10 years hence the cinephilic thirst for miscalculated topical kitsch will most likely confer onto “Dear Wendy” the same cult status as Lindsay Anderson‘s “If…,” which von Trier outdoes in hysterics, over-the-top violence, and complete irrelevance.

In his script von Trier continues to explore the hypocrisies of well-intentioned social experimentation in the face of human beings’ darker natures (think of Thomas Edison’s need to provide an “illustration” to the inhabitants of “Dogville”): once the idea of “pacifists with guns” gets bandied about by Dick and his fellow Dandies, you pretty much know where the action’s headed. But the elements composing “Dear Wendy” are too silly to see any real ideas through, and Vinterberg’s direction is amateurish. The first half hour has American flags popping up all over the place to hammer home the point to the brain damaged; the final showdown resorts to dramatic irony and action film parody so as to avoid any deeper considerations about violence. But it’s all a lark anyway. To get worked up by the flaws of “Dear Wendy” is to take seriously a film that has an elderly woman withdrawing a shotgun from her purse and blowing away a policeman in broad daylight. Ever since Dogme ’95 viewers have wondered during which moments von Trier has been fucking with them. “Dear Wendy” is such a moment.

[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He has written for the Independent, Film Comment, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]

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