Lars von Trier
Denmark / Sweden / Netherlands / France / Germany / USA , 2005
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 06 October 2005
Source IFC Films 35mm print
Features: The 43rd New York Film Festival
Reviews: Manderlay (by Beth Gilligan)
For some of us, it will be enough of a recommendation of Lars von Trier’s latest film to say that it does not hinge upon the sexual humiliation of women. Even in those of his films that do not actually enact some kind of gang rape, von Trier’s tenderhearted heroines nearly always meet with some violent and sexual form of abuse. This device that would be wholly contemptible if it weren’t as sadistically effective as it is in von Trier’s hands, but in Manderlay, the director drops this theme and instead crafts an allegory that is more subtly, more ideologically violent.
Perhaps this has more to do with the narrative arc of the USA trilogy, of which Manderlay is the centerpiece. Surely, the character of Grace cannot be beaten into submission in each of the three entries, and in any case, her vengeance against the people of Dogville at the end of that film has marked her as a heroine with a somewhat less “golden” heart. But whatever the reason, Manderlay’s Grace (played here by Bryce Dallas Howard, instead of Nicole Kidman) is more self-possessed than her earlier incarnation, though she still displays a naïve and very American faith in the innate beneficence of mankind.
This faith is once again tested when Grace (accompanied by her father’s entourage of bandits) happens upon the Alabama plantation of Manderlay, where slavery still obtains 70-odd years after its abolition. Grace immediately descends upon the white plantation-owners, exercising her father’s muscle to subdue the captors and instate democracy on the small atavistic enclave. But old habits die hard, and once the physical bonds are broken, Grace soon must devote herself to the task of dismantling the psychological bonds that still hold the slaves in line. Taking it upon herself to bring Manderlay into the 20th century, Grace begins a series of “lessons in democracy,” matriculating her black and white pupils under the shadow of the gangsters’ machine guns.
There is much contemporary resonance in Grace’s supposed emancipatory project, some (but not all) of which winkingly suggests the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the attempts to impose a Western-style democracy there. But the film’s rather more obvious implications about racial politics will be the most talked about on these shores and, though decidedly touchy, seem to me to be far more interesting. The question of race is a minefield in American discourse, and this is especially so if the questioner is a foreigner—or (gasp!) a European.
But whatever von Trier’s motives or politics, the film doesn’t explode in his face, and he is able to navigate some awkward subject matter with a good knowledge of Foucault and a healthy dose of irony (again, largely conveyed through John Hurt’s velvety narration). With this consistently ironic tone, the film is more truly Brechtian than its predecessor (after all, Hurt’s voiceover sets the scene in “Ah-lah-bah-mah”). Dogville was too cluttered with audience identification (and mortification) for one to be detached enough to grasp the intricacy of its political power, but Manderlay is quite a bit more removed, more playful, less histrionic. This is particularly helpful with the portrayals of the slaves. The film is very much von Trier’s version of Genet’s The Blacks; the black actors (all of whom are excellent, few of which are actually American) often seem to be performing a kind of ironic minstrelsy, and it is part of the chilling power of Manderlay to see how deeply this irony is embedded into the film’s structure.
Like Dogville, Manderlay has an extended running time (about two and a half hours), but nonetheless manages to thoroughly engage its viewer in the architecture of human power relations for its duration. But in the latter film, this is achieved largely without recourse to melodrama or the psychological torture of its stars. That it is the second film in von Trier’s series also frees the director from obsessing about (or even, for the most part, calling attention to) any supposed formal innovation. So, what results is a rather unusual von Trier film, a somewhat dryly discursive work whose formalism is worn lightly, whose performances impress without wearing on one’s nerves, and whose ethical standpoint is more or less plain for all to observe. Consequently, this may strike many of von Trier’s fans as a rather toothless entry in the director’s catalog, a film divested of the usual heartstring virtuosity that is his trademark.
But for my money, Manderlay is probably von Trier’s best film. Without juggling chainsaws or sawing his lead actress in half, the director has fashioned a work that presents a deeply disquieting allegory about power (and a distinctly American form of power at that), one that earnestly demands consideration, debate, and counterarguments. Of course, if this film receives any notice from the popular press at all, it will no doubt be peppered with “how dare he“‘s and “what does he know“‘s, but at least it will not be so easy to dismiss von Trier’s work for its misogyny or sadism. It is therefore encouraging that von Trier has realized that it is easy to get people riled up about rape but far more interesting to make them angry about the exigencies of class and race. After many years of provoking us to tears and disgust, von Trier has finally found the value in provoking us to debate and skepticism.