Dutch actor and director Alex van Warmerdam is one odd man. He headed up a theater group through most of the 1980s before investing his energy in movies in the early 1990s — not that we would know. Modestly feted in Europe, his films receive scant, if any, distribution in American art-house cinemas, and perhaps for good reason: Van Warmerdam's seriocomic sensibility is dark, obtuse, and maybe even a bit pathological. The proof is in two of his 1990s movies that recently arrived over here via DVD.
The small cast, claustrophobic settings and absurd setup of 1998's Little Tony bear the mark of an eye weaned on the stage. The middle-aged, roomy Keet (Annet Malherbe) wants children but can't bear them. She lives on a farm with her illiterate husband, Brand (van Warmerdam himself, a tall, lurching presence with pronounced features — equal parts Ron Perlman and Dominique Pinon, but creepy), who just wants to do his chores in silent stoicism. The constant need for Keet to read him the subtitles to foreign television programming isn't maintaining his fondness for serenity.
Enter buxom city girl Lena (Ariane Schluter), whom Keet hires to tutor Brand — but whom Keet soon suspects is fertile enough to provide her with something she wants, too. She tells Lena that Brand is actually her brother, and invites the woman to live with them during his tutoring, dangling her under Brand's nose. Eventually, everybody does get what he or she wants — sort of.
The Dress, from 1996, moves more cinematically but is no less blunt about its male-female relationships. It follows the path of its titular object from picked cotton to design and production and eventually into a store and a woman's life, where it sparks various offbeat reactions. On the morning the artist comes up with a design — which he steals from an Indian woman's ensemble — his wife leaves him. The head of the clothing company fires the executive who dislikes the design. A messenger, sent to deliver the pattern to the fashion designer, arrives to find a woman wearing only boots and a bra fleeing the house, followed by a disturbingly corpulent swine and the robed, shotgun-toting designer. When the dress is finally made, its first owner falls ill. And still the movie is barely 30 minutes into its running time.
Eventually, the dress comes to be owned by a cleaning woman (Ariane Schluter again), who catches the eye of a train conductor (van Warmerdam again) on her way home. He stalks her in hopes of committing something best described as "cuddle rape" — which he tries again on an even younger woman who buys the dress at a thrift store after the cleaning woman discards it. To top it all off, the dress itself — a blue, summery item with a rather pedestrian leafy motif — is totally unremarkable.
Van Warmerdam shoots everything with a sober nonchalance, as if following a woman home and climbing in next to her in bed is as commonplace as waiting for the bus. And the director's unstylized visual approach somehow makes his scenes feel all the creepier and the comedy even blacker when it arrives in practically whispered understatement.
As for the special features: Aside from trailers for The Dress, Little Tony and a third van Warmerdam feature, 2003's Grimm (and subtitle features on both discs), the lone extra is a perfectly unilluminating interview with the director.
The Dress, Little Tony