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Pacifists with guns
A region 2 DVD review of DEAR WENDY by Slarek
 

Let's get one thing straight so you know where my bias lies. I firmly believe that Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg are two of the most talented and important filmmakers of the modern age. Between them they founded a film movement (Dogme 95 – did you really need to be told that?) whose influence on subsequent cinema and even television is almost incalculable. Vinterberg's Festen was the first and best of the official Dogme films and von Trier has made a string of remarkable and often confrontational works that have divided opinion like no other modern director. So the prospect of a collaboration between the two, Vinterberg directing from a von Trier script, was always an exciting one. Upping the ante even further was the news that the film was to be a critique of gun culture and set in small-town America, inevitably recalling the devastating impact of von Trier's Dogville. Could the film really live up to a build-up like that? Well, no. Don't get me wrong, Dear Wendy is a bloody fine film in many respects, but... well, let me explain. It's all about guns, and more specifically, what people do with them.

Firearms are central to Dear Wendy, which kicks off enigmatically with a group of youngsters, dressed largely in a hodge-podge of historical garments, loading up a variety of firearms for our examination. In voice over, one of them starts reciting what sounds like a love letter to a girl named Wendy, who is initially akin to Beckett's Godot, repeatedly referred to but not shown, at least for the first twenty minutes. That said, if you haven't guessed her identity five minutes in then you need to see more movies. Following this prologue we jump back to the start of the story, as young, unsociable Dick, who has been talked into attending a birthday party by the family's good natured maid Clarabelle, buys a toy gun at a local store manned by shy, similarly aged Susan. Deciding to keep the weapon, he is surprised when quiet work colleague Stevie informs him that the gun is real, and even constructs a bullet so that he can try the weapon out. Initially reluctant, he is so liberated by the experience of firing it that he proposes the formation of a group uniting all of the town's misfit youngsters. Calling themselves The Dandys, they each select a specific gun to match their adopted personality, but as an essentially pacifist group they decree that though their guns can be carried as confidence boosters, they can only be fired in the old warehouse that they use as a home base, and never at people.

The real world love of guns extends far beyond the shores of America, but has a particular resonance there through the constitutional right to bear arms and the famed cry of the NRA, whose members proclaim that the only way you'll take their weapon is to prise it "from my cold, dead hands." Dear Wendy literalises this love affair by pairing each of the Dandies with their chosen weapon on a deep emotional level, life-long lovers who are joined in symbolic marriage ceremonies, though the secrecy of these relationships is more suggestive of illicit affairs. They even explore the attraction on a more complex level by studying weapons, firing patterns, the destructive effects of exit wounds, and the power of self-inflicted pain to promote a fearlessness in battle. As the narrator, Dick remains throughout the film's central figure, but his relationship with his treasured gun is threatened by the arrival of Sebastian, whose own fascination with the weapon sparks a jealousy that ultimately casts the gun itself in the role of unfaithful partner.

All of which is well and good, but this is not the film's underlying theme so much as its clearly proclaimed raison d'être, resulting in a film that wears its subtext on its sleeve and creates the sense of a tale that the storyteller believes he is whispering but which can be heard from halfway across town. Certainly the sexual element of the human/gun relationship dates back to Freud, and has been toyed with in films from Bonnie and Clyde to The Enforcer and beyond. The idea of a gun as surrogate female partner was a memorable aspect of Full Metal Jacket (and especially the self-destruction of Private Pile), and was most directly explored in Ashley James King's short film Seduction, in which a man's deadly relationship with a glamorous blonde climaxes with a suicidal stand-off with armed police and the revelation that the woman is actually a handgun, compressing key elements of Dear Wendy's feature length story down into an economical 5 minutes of screen time.

Other subtextual elements are woven into the mix, from the social paranoia associated with the fear of rising crime to issues of power-inspired confidence and the disillusionment and disappointment of youth. Indeed, the film says a little about quite a lot, but a lot about very little, touching on elements rather than exploring them in depth. This seems to have been deliberate, with Vinterberg himself suggesting that the film was intended to provide no answers, just to provoke debate, though one he will presumably not be involved in. That the Dandies themselves are all effectively outsiders, misfits in a society in which even they describe themselves as losers, conforms a little too readily to the favourite media stereotype of unsociable, introspective victim who finds power and expression through violent action. This still makes for interesting cross-reading, however – with their costumes and props and secret signs and congratulatory "Brideshead stutter," this group could just as easily be Trekkies or role-players or bikers, or a thousand and one other groups that society at large will happily label as odd, but which for its members provides a sense of identity and belonging.

It may play at times like the Beginner's Guide to Subtextual Cinema, but in other respects Dear Wendy is an involving and sometimes inventive work, with quietly engaging performances from its largely young cast (Jamie Bell, Mark Webber, Danso Gordon, Michael Angarano and especially Chris Owen and Alison Pill), some effective post-modernist touches (borrowing tricks from Oldboy and Three Kings, and even offering a passing nod to Dogville) and some nifty work from Vinterberg and his crew, creating a sense of drifting timescales through costume, set design and repeated visual references to the Old West. It is a collage of intriguing ideas, neither as focussed or as powerful as von Trier's own Dogville or even Michael Moore's documentary examination of gun culture Bowling for Columbine. It nonetheless engages on an emotional level enough for us to really feel for the Dandies when things, as they are destined to do from the start, take a darker turn. The climactic stand-off, triggered by a genuinely unexpected moment of jarring violence, is compelling cinema – startling, intelligent, tragic and above all moving, it's message may not be new, but is nonetheless delivered with considerable style and appropriate impact, and climaxes on a note that would have filled Freud with glee.

sound and vision

A testament to just how good HD video can look when transferred to film, the picture here is absolutely first rate, with colours, contrast and detail close to perfect, and had I not seen the untreated footage (see the extras for this) with my own eyes I would have sworn this was shot on film. The framing is a slightly unusual 1.65:1 and is anamophically enhanced.

An unflashy but very nice 5.1 mix very effectively creates a sense of place through a strong use of ambient sound and effects, which really come into their own during the climactic confrontation, and use the entire sound stage to arresting effect. Music and dialogue are crystal clear throughout.

extra features

A decent collection of extras borrowed from the Danish Nordisk release kicks off not in the Extras section, but in the Setup menu, where you will find a commentary by director Thomas Vinterberg and DoP Anthony Dodd Mantel. It gets off to a fairly deadly start, with both men hesitant about getting going and then simply pointing out what we can see on screen, but quickly improves to cover the collaborative process between von Trier and Vinterberg, the work of the actors, the origins of Dandyism, the potential racial readings of Sebastian's character, and a few interesting on-set (or in one case in hotel) anecdotes. There is, though, a lot of discussion on the subtextual reading of particular scenes, which even the least deconstructive viewer should be able to process without help.

Also on the Setup menu you will find 9 Letters to Dear Wendy, short spoken letters from the cast and the director (the longest is 3:26) recording their experiences on the film, recorded at various stages of the production, accompanied by a sequence of the film in which they (when the actors are speaking) figure. These are all interesting, though this is largely a yahoo for the very positive experience the film seems to have been for everyone. Extracts from these appear in the next extra.

Letters to Dear Wendy (25:01) is a behind-the-scenes documentary of considerable interest, covering the construction of the sets, the introduction of the actors to their respective guns and firearms in general, and the location shift to Germany for the factory interior scenes. There are plenty of interviews with cast and crew members, and extracts from the Dear Wendy letters also featured on the disk.

The Director and Screenwriter (16:50) is an interview with Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, part of which is incorporated into the Letters to Dear Wendy documentary. They discuss their collaboration on the film, the differences in their respective approaches, what happens to the human body when it's shot and the widespread fascination with guns. In Danish with removable English subtitles.

The UK-US Teaser (0:55) plays up the film's postmodernist use of graphics, but is an intriguing enough sell.

The UK-US Trailer (1:59) follows more traditional lines, over-emphasising the disruptive arrival of Sebastian to the group and his conflict with Dick.

Trailer (1:43) is along similar lines to the immediately above, but slightly more inventive in its editing.

TV Spot (0:41) compresses elements from the above and plays up the action elements.

There are 5 Deleted Scenes: Guess the Gun (4:10) includes some flirting between Sebastian and Susan and some real verbal conflict between Sebastian and Dick, one shot from which appears in the trailers; Sebastian's Baptism (1:29) emphasises the ritualistic aspect of the group's human/gun relationship and overstates the jealousy/betrayal element triggered by Sebastian's arrival; Second Parade (1:23) features some more Electric Parc Square celebratory dancing – the film's video origins are more evident here; Marshall Walker (2:15) expands on Walker's communication with Sheriff Krugsby (Bill Pullman), showing him in the back of his car rather than as a disembodied voice; Original Script Ending (7:26) is compiled from a combination of processed footage and original HD material, and includes one significant change that also explains the mysterious appearance in the road of a particular object in the final scene (well, sort of), an extended version of the final interior set-up and a post-ending conclusion. All have optional (partial) commentary by Vinterberg and editor Mikkel E.G., which is conducted in English and explains why and when the scenes were removed.

Poster Artwork is a nicely done gallery of posters for the film that can be browsed through, or individual posters can selected via large thumbnails and enlarged close to full screen.

summary

It is somewhat inevitable that some will read Dear Wendy as another Lars von Trier penned attack on aspects American society, but as Vinterberg points out on the commentary, the human love affair with guns is an almost world-wide issue and not specific to any one country (though the fact that von Trier repeatedly chooses to set his critiques of human behaviour in the USA can't help but raise questioning eyebrows). In that respect, Dear Wendy has a great deal going for it, as what it has to say is both relevant and absolutely worth saying, even if it does say it in sometimes overly literal terms. As drama it is involving stuff, is very well made and acted and absolutely deserves to be widely seen and, yes, discussed, just as Vinterberg and von Trier wanted. And Metrodome's DVD is good place to start the debate, being essentially a port of the Danish Nordisk release, with fine picture and sound and all of that disk's extras, only now you don't have to navigate a Danish DVD site to get it.

Dear Wendy

Denmark /France/ Germany/UK 2005
100 mins
director
Thomas Vinterberg
starring
Jamie Bell
Bill Pullman
Michael Angarano
Danso Gordon
Novella Nelson
Chris Owen
Alison Pill
Mark Webber

DVD details
region 2
video
1.65:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
English
extras
Director and cinematographer commentary
Letters to Dear Wendy
Behind-the-scenes documentary
Interview with director and screenwriter
Trailers and TV spot
Deleted scenes
Posters
distributor
Metrodome
release date
9 January 2006
review posted
7 January 2006

related reviews
The Hunt
Dancer in the Dark
Dogville
Manderlay
The Boss of It All
Antichrist

See all of Slarek's reviews