Filmmaker Lars von Trier's latest attack on American hypocrisy may be muddled, but anyone who cares about this country's future should give Manderlay the attention it deserves.
In the rush to categorize Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier as a raging anti-American and endless torturer of his female protagonists (not to mention the actresses who play them), his often startling technical and structural abilities have been mostly forgotten. Ignoring their thematic content, rich as it is, movies like Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville are stuffed with clever ideas — showtunes interludes, stories divided into chapters like a novel, experimental and theatrical staging — that separate them from the tame formal look of American commentators like John Sayles. Von Trier doesn't always make terrific films, but they're certainly never dull — you get the sense that he's pouring his heart into every frame, which makes the charges of cynicism inaccurate. The man may have deep hatred for certain American ways of thinking, but he's nothing if not passionate about his objections.
Of course, many just find him and his ideas totally insufferable, and his latest, Manderlay, won't do much to sway that dislike. But despite its mixed results, Manderlay doesn't fail because of von Trier's politics — it's all in the execution, or lack thereof.
The second in his trilogy of films decrying the hypocrisy of the United States, Manderlay picks up where Dogville left off, except Grace is no longer played by Nicole Kidman, but by Bryce Dallas Howard, perhaps the most damaging difference from the original. It's 1933 and Grace, her mob-boss father, and his cadre of gangsters have left Dogville, Colorado and found themselves in Manderlay, an Alabama slave plantation — the only one that exists since slavery was abolished 70 years earlier. Outraged at the ongoing oppression, Grace frees the black men and women of Manderlay and decides to lead them toward creating a free society at the plantation following the principles of justice and equality. After all, it's the American way, right?
Anyone who's even read a review of a von Trier film can guess that the transition to freedom will be far from smooth. Like with Dogville, Manderlay opens with a community ripe with promise and idealism, only to watch it crumble thanks to the foibles of human beings' basic makeup. In addition, this new film continues the trilogy's use of a spare soundstage for all the action — chalk markings on the floor indicate different dwellings — as well as an unseen narrator presiding over the film's comings and goings. But whereas Dogville's plot was a slippery series of surprises and shifting character loyalties, a well-told story with a striking look, Manderlay is more of the same without many of the satisfying twists of narrative that kept the Dogville viewer on his toes.
The biggest liability is the lightweight Howard. Whereas Kidman could play Grace's ingénue helplessness and steely menace equally well, Howard feels too young, too whiny, too strident. She lacks the necessary dimensions, and so Grace's self-righteous desire to "help" these slaves seems obviously doomed from the start — never a good thing for a filmmaker like von Trier who relies on audience sympathy for his morality tales to wield any power.
But Manderlay is a victim of hazy storytelling as well. Generally, von Trier takes his angelic female characters to psychological and physical extremes in order to illustrate the cruelty of contemporary life, but Manderlay represents a change in that his central woman has the upper hand, only to discover how ill-prepared she is to handle this plantation as it struggles toward democracy. It's a nice change of pace, but von Trier doesn't feel confident — indeed, the middle section of the film becomes a repetition of Grace acting stridently "helpful" and then watching as her actions blow up in her face to the detriment of Manderlay's black citizens. It's some of the weakest work he's ever done.
But if his plotting is suspect and his visually stunning sets now hurt by familiarity, Manderlay remains a bundle of worthy ideas. Von Trier seemed to be attacking America's compassionate conservatives in Dogville, showing the dark underside to Christian "generosity," but Manderlay takes aim at liberals with their pious belief that they can save the world through noble intentions. That change in political skewering demonstrates von Trier has plenty of ammo to go around, and Grace's growing frustration with the slaves' refusal to be happy about their "freedom" has unsettling undercurrents that flow all the way to our current occupation of Iraq. No question that Lars von Trier is still angry at our great nation, calling on us to rise to our potential, not sink into the morass of earlier fallen empires. But speeches go down better with strong filmmaking. His points are as valid as ever in Manderlay, but you miss the storytelling brio. You miss Nicole Kidman, too.
Tim Grierson writes the Consumables column, a biweekly overview of popular culture.