DEAR WENDY directed by Thomas Vinterberg, written by Lars von Trier, with Jamie Bell, Bill Pullman, Michael Angarano and Alison Pill. A TVA Films release. 105 minutes. Opens Friday (February 24). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Park City, Utah - Thomas Vinterberg is unfailingly polite, rigorously articulate and surprisingly well groomed. He's like Lars von Trier's good twin.
Vinterberg and von Trier pretty much invented Dogme, and Vinterberg's The Celebration was the first official Dogme film. While von Trier went on to impress critics and terrorize actors, Vinterberg had trouble following up on The Celebration's success.
"I've been standing in the shadows of that film for years," he admits at Sundance 2005.
But after the mystifying It's All About Love, Vinterberg has rebounded with a shockingly good moral fable, Dear Wendy. Working from a script by von Trier, he turns in a picture of teenage gun fetishism that is lacerating, erotic and precise. It's about the inner logic of action movies.
Sitting down to a custom-ordered beverage - "a double espresso with as much hot milk in it as coffee" - Vinterberg tries to explain what drew an urbane Dane to the thrills of cold American steel.
"I am a born and raised socialist," he says. "I don't understand gun control in this country. Having said that, this is not a film about gun control. It's also a film about gun control. This film is as much about togetherness and how much you can do together. It's about loneliness. And the core of it is exploring the almost sexual attraction toward firearms that some human beings have."
So he and his cast - including Jamie (Billy Elliot) Bell - had to get a feel for their subject.
"I'd never had a gun in my life," Vinterberg explains. "But we went to a shooting range together just to get that feeling of it."
He's philosophical about the particular evils of firearms.
"We make decisions every day in the Western world about how much money we'll send to the poor countries," he says. "So we make decisions about letting people die. The thing about a gun is that decision becomes very specific. It's right there - it's mechanical."
Unlike von Trier, Vinterberg speaks from an almost abstract perspective. He doesn't appear tortured or bent out of shape with self-regard. And he must be the only director in the world who models for Prada.
Still, he says he and von Trier are a good match.
"We've been working together for 10 years, since 95, when we formed Dogme together," he says. "We're like brothers. We have fights, but the collaboration has been pretty close.
"I think it's because the way we share competence in filmmaking is almost like in the army. He knows when he delivers a script to me and I'm to direct it that I'm in charge. That's the bottom line. You can have fights and you can yell your opinion, but at the end of the day no one has a problem with anything, because it's set that I'm the one who decides."
And if von Trier had directed Dear Wendy?
"Lars and I are ultimately different," he says slowly. "He is very mathematic, and a genius in his way of creating projects, scriptwriting and making everything fit together. He's extremely precise. He sees his films as almost a chess game, from above - literally from above.
"I am from the other place. I'm much more intuitive, emotional. I start with the character. When that becomes interesting and creates depth onscreen, then I start thinking about the story. So I think Lars's version would have been much more conceptually precise, but I don't want to talk about what it wouldn't have been."
DEAR WENDY (Thomas Vinterberg) Rating: NNNNN
Dear Wendy offers Denmark a chance to offend Americans now. Lars von Trier scripted this gun-culture fable, and it has his scabrous wit. But in the hands of Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), this story of teenagers who form a secret society to worship guns takes on surprising dramatic and emotional power.
Jamie Bell is the pacifist leader, and Dear Wendy's America is a pastiche of High Noon and River's Edge. But von Trier's perverse abstraction is modulated by Vinterberg's more naturalistic style. There's still an oddly formal voice-over, but the performances have a striking force and vulnerability. Dear Wendy has the momentum of a classic fairy tale, and the shock of an action movie turned inside out.
Destined to be one of the year's best.