Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam, whose “The Northerners” was a festival favorite in 1992, spins an eventful narrative out of the story of an inanimate object in his third feature, “The Dress.” Charting the effect the titular garment has on a string of men and women, the director does a mechanically impressive job of sustaining what feels like an exercise in narrative construction. While Euro audiences in Venice responded warmly to this eccentric comedy, its borderline-offensive sexual politics appear certain to keep the pic out of Anglo territories.
First part of the film follows the dress from its origins in a cotton field through processing in a textile mill to its arrival on the racks of a boutique. The various steps are punctuated by quirky glimpses of people making key decisions. The fabric artist is dumped by his lover; the clothing company tycoon’s wife walks out; the dress designer tries unsuccessfully to persuade his companion to indulge in unnatural acts with a pig.
First to own the dress is Stella (Elisabeth Hoijtink), an aging housewife who ignores her husband’s objections that it’s too young for her and buys it anyway, finding that it fills her with strange, ultimately fatal sexual yearnings. The dress is then transported by the wind from Stella’s clothesline to Johanna (Ariane Schluter). Her appearance in it inflames the desire of an unbalanced train conductor (the director’s brother and co-producer Alex van Warmerdam) and later a bus driver (Jaap Spijkers) whom she turns to for help.
The writer-director asks the audience to laugh at a series of potential rape situations, and while he attempts to get around the ugly side of the scenarios by focusing on the ineptness of the would-be rapists, the result remains uncomfortable. This is even more apparent when the dress changes hands again and is worn by a young woman (Ricky Koole) who is forced to strip by the train conductor. Long, lingering shots of the naked, defenseless girl push comedy right out of the picture.
While van Warmerdam’s dexterity in choreographing the story’s many twists and turns is to be admired, the operation feels overextended, especially in the final section, when the title garment falls into the possession of a bag lady (Olga Zuiderhoek). He does, however, save his most inventive touch for the closing scene, in which the dress, depicted in a painting by Johanna’s contemptuous lover (Eric van der Donk), continues to exert its power.
Technically impressive and crisply shot in warm, vibrant colors, the film has already been sold in several prime European territories. But its rather cold cleverness and questionable treatment of female characters prevent it from having universal appeal.