For the most part, The Dress looks and sounds realistic. It is filmed in real places, and many in the cast seem as though they were recruited right off the street. But the story (if it can be called that) has a dress for its main character; not people wearing it, but the dress itself. The garment in question, designed as a summer frock for a young girl, changes hands in a variety of bizarre ways, and the plot becomes a series of episodes in which odd characters are oddly affected either by wearing the dress or by seeing it on someone. Males tend to become sexually crazed at the sight of it, while the women who wear it, whether in sexually repressed middle age or virginal youth, are overcome by sensations they have forgotten or don't understand.
There is plot development, driven not by the characters but by the gradual downward spiral of the odyssey of the dress, which ends up trying to keep a homeless woman warm through a freezing night. An unsuccessful Hollywood venture of 50 years ago called Tales of Manhattan gave us the odyssey of an expensive man's suit, from the haute couture of Fifth Avenue to Skid Row; but the structure of that film was carefully designed to make us aware of the rigid social hierarchy in what was supposed to be a land of equality. Don't look for hidden meanings here.
Van Warmerdam's artistic baptism came from the theater, and European theatergoers are generally more tolerant of experiments than the tourists who stand in line for the half-price seats in Times Square. They're far more willing to accept what they see as long as it holds their attention, whether it is fully comprehensible or not. European film writers and directors make movies for people who have been to the theater the night before. The Dress offers shadowy vignettes of people we don't usually meet in conventional films, and, as an added bonus, a few moments that evoke erotic responses you may not have known you were capable of. It's something to let happen to you if you're willing to leave behind preconceived notions of what a movie should be.
I haven't yet seen what are hyped to be the Festival showpieces, and, because of deadlines, I probably will never see them all, but for the most part this initial group is more than casually interesting. A pity festivals must rely on hype. Saying that many of the films offer more rewards than those that sell out at the malls should be sufficient. Less glitz could mean less overhead, but not necessarily less screen art, and maybe even a few more screenings.
The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival continues through November 16. The Miami Mini-Fest commences tonight, October 30, and runs through Sunday, November 2, at the Bill Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami campus (off Campo Sano Avenue in Coral Gables; 284-4861). Tickets for all regular showings are $7 (opening- and closing-night screenings, as well as IMAX films, cost a little more). For a complete schedule of festival events, please see the special "Calendar Listings" section beginning on page 42 or call 954-564-7373.