Friday, October 07, 2005


DEAR WENDY (2005, Denmark, Thomas Vinterberg, Lars von Trier screenplay)
It's the time of the season for loving

Dick loves Wendy. Helplessly, obsessively, tragically. It's a star-crossed-lovers story that's as ancient as it is familiar. With one crucial variation: Wendy is a gun. Specifically, a 6.35mm six shooter, a sweet little double action pearl handle revolver with internal hammer who makes a new man of Dick, turns a weak and sensitive loner into a man with confidence and authority. A good woman or the right gun can do that.

Dick refuses to follow in the footsteps of the town's real men and work in the mine. He stocks shelves in the corner grocery and carts around a toy gun he found in a second-hand shop, comforting himself with smug judgements of the town's other inhabitants (as much an echo of DOGVILLE as the story's stylized small-town setting). Until he learns the true power of what he carries in his pocket, and his life begins to change. He's a natural shooter who he can plant six shots in the centre of a target without aiming or even thinking. Wendy and Dick are made for each other.

Problem is, one of Dick's strategies for moral superiority has been to call himself a pacifist. But hey, that's no problem: his firearm will be carried but not brandished. Why bother? Just packing heat makes him walk taller – of course he's never going to use his weapon. If you grew up in the MAD shadow DOCTOR STRANGELOVE, you're already sceptical: it's a naive rationalization that contains the seed of eventual tragedy.

Dick and a gun-loving "Hey, I'm a pacifist too!" pal from the grocery store form The Dandies, complete with secret passwords and symbols, rituals and pledges, even dress-up clothes and a secret clubhouse they fix up in an abandoned part of the mine. It's everything kids could want in a secret club. Big kids. Kids with guns.

Of course, as Ibsen taught us, a gun on the mantle in Act One must be used before the end of Act Three. Complications arise, as complications are wont to do, and sudden violence escalates into a bloody BUTCH CASSIDY / WILD BUNCH showdown in the town square, triggered by a tragic misunderstanding.

Well, not exactly tragic. This sad-fated tale doesn't actually aim for the emotional catharsis of tragedy. Its tongue is mostly in its cheek, and it's plenty cheeky. DEAR WENDY is to DOGVILLE as DOCTOR STRANGELOVE is to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – indeed, the "I can walk" climax is a direct nod to that other over-the-top satire of the American weapons fetish: WENDY could easily be subtitled "How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Gun." Everything is played with a brash style and ironic tone that signals satire more than sentiment: Lars and Thomas don't want to break our heart, they want to poke us in the eye or slap us upside the head.

Judging by the critics, they succeed at that if nothing else. This movie makes Americans mad – which no doubt makes Vinterberg and von Trier perfectly happy. The not-so-melancholy Danes are in mischief-maker mode, court jesters whose cinematic smackdown chooses provocation over subtlety. Antagonistic reviewers find the movie glib, its characters, situations and plot developments absurd: I'm guessing the film-makers simply find America's love affair with guns equally absurd, and are quite content to match style and subject.

Whether you love or hate this bratty little movie may depend on whether you feel it's your nose that's being tweaked by the town fools. If you're pretty convinced that guns don't kill people, etc, that your country's more right than wrong and that America's latest war "is really about peace" (aren't they all?), you'll likely find this movie by a couple of Europeans facile, as condescending and self-righteous as its misguided central character. On the other hand, if you consider all this GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL stuff a poor way to run a country, DEAR WENDY may seem a perfectly appropriate response, gleefully deconstructing our love of power and the dreadful gravitational pull of violence.

I don't go looking for a gospel message in every film I see. But I do have this habit of taking everything life brings my way – film included – and holding it up against the Bible, to see what light might be refracted. And when I wonder what sort of letter Jesus might write to Wendy and her lover, I think of his words to Peter; "All who draw the sword will die by the sword." Maybe he said that because, if nothing else, weapons are power. Intoxicating power. DEAR WENDY charts the corruption wrought by that kind of power, observing the way young ideals fall by the way once easier, quicker, more decisive strategies present themselves.

Maybe what we've got here isn't exactly a love story or a tragedy, or even a satire. Maybe Dear Wendy is film noir in disguise, sans tough detectives or moody black and white cinematography. Naive, corruptible, lonely young man meets femme fatale, and it all leads, inevitably, absurdly, to destruction.

Some dames you just can't trust. Dames like Wendy.

Available at Videomatica
Originally published at Christianity Today Movies
P.S. DEAR WENDY has the best website in the world. The one for DOGVILLE was equally cool, but it has disappeared from the web.

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