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In Brief: "The Dress"

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In the award-winning Dutch movie The Dress, a thin summer frock, enlivened with a pattern of golden leaves against a blue background, passes from one person to another and destroys, or nearly destroys, the women who wear it and the men in love with these women. The Dress, which was written and directed by Alex van Warmerdam, is based on a mysteriously whimsical idea: We never know why the garment has been cursed, or what the curse means. The Dress is a fairy tale without a witch. And the movie, though fascinating, is marked less by magic than by perversity. Two of the young women who possess the dress are very appealing, but Van Warmerdam treats them rather badly. The housekeeper Johanna (Ariane Schluter), mistress of a brusque old painter, attracts the interest of a railway ticket collector (played by the director), who follows her home and climbs into bed with her when the painter isn’t there. Johanna, an easygoing woman with a quick smile and a beautiful figure, is shocked but not altogether indifferent, and at first the collector seems possible as a lover. When he is revealed as a creep, the moviegoer, as well as Johanna, feels cheated. And when this creep then pursues the next owner of the dress, young Chantelle (Ricky Koole), who is alone in the country and vulnerable (her parents are away), we are appalled. The sexual scenes are staged as comedy, but the comedy is devoted to a potential rape. I won’t reveal what happens, but Van Warmerdam seems little concerned with the pleasure of his audience. And why shouldn’t he be? Why shouldn’t he charm us? It’s not as if he had anything profound to say. The curse hanging over the dress is removed from ritual or rage or guilt or anything else that might give it meaning. The Dress takes some unusual twists and turns, and the way the story just passes from one vignette to the next is deft, but I can’t help feeling that the movie’s conceits are at the service of a remorseless -- a meaninglessly remorseless -- view of life.


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