Once, many years ago, I moved into a big old house. It seemed a fine house -- good
location, decent roommates, cheap rent, and an airy room. I lasted a month. Oh, nothing
ever went bump in the night there, but the house was imbued with a pervasive sense
of despair that no amount of sunlight or cheery decor could dispel. Some time later,
I learned that it had once been used as a private (no doubt unlicensed) nursing home.
So, the world of The Dress, where inanimate objects act as receptacles, even conduits,
of anima would, I thought, be a familiar if not entirely comfortable place for me.
A bright and jaunty leaf-motif dress, designed in fury and fashioned from a swath
of fabric conceived in anger, has a strange and tragic effect on everyone who comes
into contact with it, especially the women who wear it. From an aging housewife whose
unexpected fit of passion leads suddenly and inexplicably to her demise, to a young
and romantically frustrated housemaid's bizarre dalliance with a perverted train
conductor, to a bag lady for whom the dress becomes a shroud, the seemingly harmless
frock unravels each life as quickly as it spins them all together in a mesmerizing,
but disturbing, web of sex and violence and longing. Like a spider to a fly, Dutch
director and writer Alex van Warmerdam (who also stars) invites us into his parlor
with moments of intimacy and silliness, stuns us with tragedy and menace, then abruptly
sets us free. Then, just as we are laughing nervously, wondering if we were ever
really in any danger at all, we're seized again. In one particularly memorable scene,
the lonely maid meets the lascivious conductor for a romantic tryst in a house that
seems to be decorated with oversized Barbie furniture and objets d'art won on a midway.
The absurd pink frilliness lends the scene an incongruously sinister quality which
turns comically violent when the huge homeowner with even bigger hair turns up toting
her equally oversized shotgun. But the comedy is a brief and deceptive reprieve.
Van Warmerdam creates a bleak and disquieting landscape through which The Dress dances
and floats, taunts and cajoles. Moments of whimsy crash up against angst, tenderness
collides with degradation, levity slips into darkness. It's an unsettling world out
of kilter, connected by a simple dress, hanging by a thread.
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