Lars Von Trier, King of Pain and Chief Danish Weirdo. I bet he was one of those children that enjoyed pulling the wings off flies. He has grown up and turned into a director who likes pulling the metaphorical wings off women – and somehow convinces some of our most talented actresses to let him do it.
Manderlay is a sequel of sorts to 2003’s Dogville. Grace (now played by Howard, replacing Nicole Kidman), having watched Dogville burn, sets off across the southern states of America with her gangster father (Dafoe) and his band of merry henchmen, looking for a new hunting ground. Driving through Alabama, they stop for a quick meal outside a large wrought-iron gate and high fence, a boulder next to it displaying the name Manderlay. Just as they are about to leave, a young black woman appears, jumping through the fence, and hammers desperately on Grace’s window, pleading for help. Ignoring her father’s advice, Grace follows the woman and enters Manderlay, where the white plantation owners are just about to administer a beating to one of their slaves.
Grace is appalled to realise that these people are living as if slavery had never been abolished. After releasing the prisoner, she is taken to see Mam (Bacall), the dying matriarch of Manderlay. Grace tells her father that they owe it to the slaves to see that they are freed – more, she, backed up by her father’s gunmen, forces the white family to hand over the deeds to the new owners, a co-operative of the former slaves. Grace herself will stay, with a handful of henchmen, to see the harvest successfully bought in.
But the slaves have no idea how to run things without anyone to tell them what to do, and Grace finds herself overseeing the work, offering suggestions, and becoming more and more frustrated with their lack of initiative…
Suffice it to say if you didn’t like Dogville you probably won’t like Manderlay, as it employs all the same artifice, and lacks the shock factor of the earlier film. Filmed on a bare lot, with minimal props; rooms again are indicated only by lines on the stage. Sometimes this works beautifully – the opening sequence of shadowy cars driving across the map is lovely. John Hurt’s mellifluous tones are once again employed to narrate; again the film is divided into chapters. Some people will love this artifice, others will be driven mad by it.
The thesis of the film is different to Dogville’s. It’s at once more and less optimistic, and exposes the kind of woolly liberal opinions that most ‘right thinking’ people embrace as the fatuous sentiments they are. Grace wants to do right by the slaves, but she is more patronising and racist than the slave owners who lived and worked side by side with them for years. She blithely overturns Mam’s Law (the rules by which the plantation has been worked for years), sure that she is doing the right thing, not understanding that some of them are there for a very good reason – she assumes that an arboretum exists only for the pleasure of the whites and suggests that the slaves cut the trees down to repair their houses, not realising that that the trees are in fact an essential windbreak. Grace’s downfall is that she assumes that slavery is only and always an evil institution, and that consequently anything that goes against it must be good. But life is never that simple, especially in Von Trier world.
When confronted with what she is becoming, Grace’s instinct is, once again, to turn to her father and wipe Manderlay and its people off the face of the earth. Grace, who started out almost wilfully innocent in Dogville, is gradually becoming corrupted by the world. Her determination to make the world a certain way blinds her to what she is becoming. Bryce Dallas Howard in some ways works better for the role – her youthful optimism and stubbornness is more believable – a woman in her 30s might be more empathetic, more willing to compromise. Grace’s belief that she can drag Manderlay into the 20th Century down the barrel of gun, make it a better place almost against its will, is a neat metaphor for recent US foreign policy. The slaves may not be ready to have freedom foisted upon them.
Whatever you think about Lars Von Trier, at least he’s interesting, even if he is a sadist! And actors clearly love working with him, and respond by turning in incredible performances, as all the cast do here.
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