What In Carnation?

Washington City Paper | February 17, 2006
The second film of Danish provocateur Lars von Trier’s Depression-era trilogy, Manderlay has generally been received less favorably than its predecessor, Dogville. A diminished effect is probably inevitable, given that the new movie reuses the first one’s formal conceits and central dramatic developments. Both were shot on bare, modern-theater-style sets, and both turn on the failed attempt of a well-meaning liberal to transform an insular, profoundly corrupt community. Though many of the earlier drama’s actors return in smaller roles, the central player has changed: Nicole Kidman, whose vulnerability was central to Dogville’s creepy brilliance, has been replaced by Bryce Dallas Howard, whose flat, off-key performance has little emotional power. Yet Manderlay is tighter by 40 minutes and substantially less dithering. It may not be the more profound of the two films, but it is the easier to take.

Not thematically, of course. By shaking the hornet’s nest of American race relations, writer-director von Trier has guaranteed that at least some viewers will find Manderlay more injurious than its precursor. And sensitive Americans may be repelled by the fact that von Trier, who’s never visited their country, nonetheless thinks that he knows it well enough to condemn it.

The film opens on a black-and-white outline map of the United States, across which Grace (Howard), her gangster father (Willem Dafoe, an inadequate replacement for James Caan), and the latter’s henchmen are traveling in a small entourage of vintage cars. They drive from Colorado to Alabama, where a black woman approaches Grace and explains that she lives as a slave at the nearby plantation of Manderlay. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the estate in Hitchcock’s Rebecca; as always, von Trier has assembled his “America” as much from film history as from the real thing.

Outraged by the news that slavery survives 70 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Grace seizes control of Manderlay with the help of her father’s gangsters. Dad wants no part of her do-goodism, but he agrees to leave half of his men with his daughter as muscle, giving her the opportunity to right the social order. Grace puts the plantation owners to work for the collective good and introduces democratic decision-making to the freed slaves. But she doesn’t always understand the implications of her actions, and the people she’s trying to help—whose spokesperson is Wilhelm (Danny Glover), the cagey old house slave who’s not telling everything he knows—generally just watch her falter. Eventually, Grace will realize she’s become the plantation’s brutal new overseer, imposing her ideas by force rather than reason.

This could be, of course, a political allegory. Manderlay might be Iraq and Grace another child of power and privilege using Daddy’s connections to undertake a political project she (or he) doesn’t have the savvy to complete. Yet von Trier is regularly distracted from that idea by the delightful possibilities of tweaking American racial sensitivity.

Thus he stages a scene in which Grace, angry at the family members who owned the plantation, forces them to blacken their faces and serve dinner to their former vassals. The director also indulges a subplot involving Grace’s helpless attraction to the imperious, African-accented Timothy (Isaach De Bankolé). This echoes the lurid 1975 plantation-sex-party flick Mandingo—a close alphabetical neighbor to Manderlay—as well as von Trier’s well-established taste for sexually subjugating his female characters. (See Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and of course Dogville, in which Grace becomes the town’s sex slave.)

The script is an awkward mix of Britishisms (“put paid”), anachronistic slang (“with it”), and literary language from the 1930s and earlier (when Grace masturbates, she experiences “pulsating explosions in her nether regions”). And like Dogville, Manderlay is narrated by John Hurt, whose remarks are another Brechtian distancing device. Also like its predecessor, the new film ends with a montage of photographs of a hateful U.S.A., accompanied by David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”

More effectively, von Trier concludes this chapter with a reversal of fortune similar, though not identical, to Dogville’s. As before, the dramatic shift is electrifying. For all its false notes, Manderlay turns out to be a surprisingly robust yarn, suggesting that, even if there’s almost nothing else of worth in this benighted land of ours, classic Hollywood storytelling does have its virtues.

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