Lars von Trier
Denmark / Sweden / Netherlands / France / Germany / USA, 2005
Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 06 October 2005
Source IFC Films 35mm print
Features: The 43rd New York Film Festival
Reviews: Manderlay (by Leo Goldsmith)
Lars von Trier may be one of the most polarizing figures in world cinema today, but even his detractors have difficulty dismissing him outright, while his admirers are forced to contend with his often troubling (read: misogynistic) depictions of women. This mass of contradictions, combined with an uncanny talent for self-promotion (the press tends to come calling when you have Björk describing your working methods as “soul-robbery” and John C. Reilly fleeing your set in protest of the slaughter of a live donkey), has helped assure worldwide distribution of his films, which have inevitably inspired intense critical debate. It is all the more surprising, then, that his latest offering, Manderlay, seemed to get lost in the shuffle when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last May. Whether this tepid reaction was a reflection of critic and audience fatigue towards the director’s controversy-courting or of their general dislike of the film itself remains to be seen, but given von Trier’s stature and the movie’s unabashedly provocative message, it seems deserving of a second look.
Manderlay, the second feature in von Trier’s proposed “USA: Land of Opportunities” trilogy, picks up where Dogville left off, following Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard instead of Nicole Kidman), her father and his band of gangsters as they travel across Depression-era America. Along the way, they stop in Alabama, where they discover the eponymous plantation populated by slaves and run by a steely Southern belle who passes away soon after the group’s arrival. Horrified by this anachronistic way of life, Grace begs her father to allow her and a few of his prized gangsters to stay on she can teach the slaves how to transition into the freedom they’ve been unlawfully denied for decades. “We have a moral obligation,” she insists.
However, Grace’s ideals soon bump up against the realities of life on the plantation. To her frustration, the slaves do not seem grateful for her presence, and show little interest in maintaining the upkeep of the place. Determined to prove to her father she can succeed in transforming Manderlay, she presses on, encouraging the inhabitants to repair their dilapidated houses, teaching them about democracy, and helping them plow the fields. At the same time, she struggles to control her budding sexual attraction to Timothy, the slave who has proved most resistant to her grand plans for the plantation. As events begin to spiral out of control, the balance of power begins to shift, and Grace is surprised to learn who has really been in charge of Manderlay all these years.
As in Dogville, the story is divided into chapters, each narrated with imperious gusto by John Hurt. Von Trier also recycles the Brechtian devices he used in the previous film, using bare-bones sets to draw attention to the artifice of the production, while coaching his actors to perform in a naturalistic manner that clashes with these surroundings. One jarring exception to this rule is Howard, whose performance comes across much more stilted and forced than Kidman’s. As a result, Manderlay’s Grace come off as more of a cipher for von Trier’s bold statements than an actual character.
Manderlay also suffers more from von Trier’s grand political pronouncements than Dogville did. In the latter case, his skills as a dramatist came to the fore, with a compelling exploration the dark side of human nature trumping the director’s grabs at controversy. “Men are the same everywhere…greedy as animals,” snarls Stellan Skarsgaard’s character, and the universality of this indictment rings true until the final credits sequence, when von Trier atones for the uncharacteristic restraint he has exhibited by plastering images of extremes of American poverty on the screen, complete with David Bowie’s “Young Americans” on the soundtrack. While his point is certainly not without validity, his USA-bashing shifted the debate from the content of this fascinating film into a facile argument over von Trier’s anti-Americanism (his critics often gleefully point out he has never set foot here).
Although the arguments put forth in Manderlay are more provocative than those in the previous film, and they open up a crucial dialogue about the legacy of slavery, they unfortunately share the heavy-handedness of the closing titles sequence of Dogville (rest assured von Trier has placed a similar photo and soundtrack montage at the end of this film). Iraq allegories are impossible to escape in Grace’s handling of the plantation and its inhabitants, and von Trier weighs down the script with a series of plot contrivances to highlight her incompetence (as in his other movies, he seems to delight in the humiliation of the female characters here).
Still, for all its flaws, Manderlay stands out among the most thought-provoking entries in the New York Film Festival. The bulk of the film may feel like a build-up to the revelation of the final scene, but this scene is sufficiently provocative and powerful to withstand the weight that has been put on it shoulders, and, as von Trier will undoubtedly be thrilled to know, it seems likely earn him even more enemies.