The Austin Chronicle

The Dress

Not rated, 103 min. Directed by Alex Van Warmerdam. Starring Van Warmerdam, Henri Garcin, Ariane Schluter, Ricky Koole, Rijk De Gooyer.

REVIEWED By Hollis Chacona, Fri., Aug. 14, 1998

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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