Lars Von Trier could almost get a trademark on provocation by now. He heatedly divides many film critics over his works as to whether they are substantive social critiques or hermetically-sealed worlds of contrived manipulation. Either way, his handling of both his filmic universes and the media attention they garner are inarguably and self-servingly savvy. He tests his audiences to the breaking point of incredulity, and his outrageous comments and doctrines are quickly made and often just as quickly forgotten. In the end, all his vexing and taunting really add up to one thing – clever marketing.
With Manderlay, his sequel to Dogville, Von Trier has come up with his most provocative premise yet. Suffering few aftereffects following the traumas of Dogville, the idealistic Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, The Village) travels with her gangster father (Willem Dafoe, Platoon) to the fictional Manderlay plantation in Alabama. Here she comes upon a black slave being whipped, and discovers that slavery has not been abolished here, though it is now the 1930s, 70 years after the Civil War. With help from her father’s goons, Grace immediately frees the half dozen black families and launches into a social experiment based on the premise of freedom and democracy. Whether Grace, the former slaves, and their ex-masters are ready for such a fundamental shift in the status quo is another matter entirely.
Like Dogville, Manderlay is a socio-political allegory, in this case a vicious attack on the American dogmatism that freedom and democracy are worth pursuing regardless of circumstances and power relationships. It’s also an attack on the current Bush administration and the Iraq War, a reading made concrete by photos in the end credit sequence, again like those in Dogville, scored to David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” In addition to images of 9/11, Bush’s visage supplants those of Nixon. In an unplanned-for coincidence that Von Trier must dearly love, one section of the movie even mirrors Hurricane Katrina. Just as the disappearance of barrier wetlands contributed to the destruction of New Orleans, an act of environmental demolition results in horrible damage done to Manderlay from a dust storm.
Like common complaints against George W. Bush, Grace is upended at every turn by her poor planning and the inability to predict basic human responses to her plans. She gives them too much credit and has too much faith that freedom alone brings people character. Not that Grace does not have her successes as well. At first, freedom for the slaves means the freedom to neglect responsibilities, and Grace must do some organized corralling. As events progress however, an Animal Farm-like absurdity emerges in their situation. Whether someone is allowed to laugh and the time on a clock are put to a vote. Her own rules turn into a capital punishment nightmare.
Manderlay is every bit as ambitious as Dogville, but it lacks Dogville’s effortless execution. Manderlay mirrors it stylistically with its wall-less sets, but what was original before now looks like a pale copy. The tone is turned up a notch. The wry narration by John Hurt, reprising his function from Dogville, is even more sarcastic this time out. Von Trier seems openly contemptuous of Grace and has turned her into a blatant caricature. Manderlay is more didactic. In Grace vs. Daddy, we have the New vs. the Old Testament and freedom vs. fascism, and at one point, this takes the form of a literal, dry sociological debate.
Whereas Dogville was a meticulous exploration of human ego, selfishness, and the willingness to exploit others, Manderlay’s characters feel more like puppets being pulled by Von Trier’s strings. This is not due to the actors themselves who struggle mightily to bring some sense of humanity to their roles. Some succeed (Suzette Llewellyn, Ginny Holder) and some don’t (Howard, Isaach De Bankole). As Grace, Howard is certainly willing to take risks and put herself in vulnerable situations, the mark of dedication in any true actor. On the other hand, she lacks the older Kidman’s more mature presence, which held a strength becoming to a kingpin’s daughter. Howard’s Grace is whinier and more childlike. (Kidman was 35 when she made Dogville, Howard is now 24.) It doesn’t help that Grace has become a self-righteous stereotype of liberal do-goodism. The only thing recognizably human in her now are her sexual urges.
For all of Von Trier’s facetiousness and bravado, there is no doubt about his filmic talent and his nerve. How meaningful his treatises are and how palatably he presents them are debatable. With Manderlay, he has imbued the material with enough dramatic power and relevance that despite its many flaws, it is still essential viewing.