Self-appointed American history professor Lars von Trier has come up with another barbed allegorical lecture about the ugliness of the U.S. legacy in “Manderlay.” Second installment in the Danish helmer’s “USA” trilogy employs the same bare-bones, stage bound aesthetic approach as “Dogville,” and is actually a leaner, better constructed and 40-minutes shorter picture than its predecessor. The subject being race relations, “Manderlay” is bound to stir considerable debate in intellectual circles, but given the director’s abstract style and use of characters to enact an agenda, it’s a discussion that will exclude the general public, who will ignore it as they did “Dogville.”
Those prepared by the earlier film to know where the writer-director is coming from will hardly be startled by his polemical provocations this time around. In fact, most of his points about slavery and its ramifications are entirely plausible and have cleverly been shaped in the scenario to further his arguments about the persistence of deep-seeded racial attitudes.
But arguments are what they are and what the film is designed to create, given the let-me-tell-you-how-it-is tone and tunnel focus of the drama.
Just as von Trier was inspired by “The Threepenny Opera” for “Dogville,” he has again Americanized a foreign story to serve his purposes. Source this time is, of all things, the notorious French tome “Histoire d’O,” preface to which is entitled “Happiness in Slavery.” Work recounts a story from Barbados in which some black slaves, freed by law in 1838, asked their former master to take them back. When he refused, they killed him and his family, then moved back into their old quarters and resumed their work as before.
Visually witty opening depicts a lined map of the United States being traversed by what look like toys that turn into the cars carrying the gangster entourage from “Dogville” away from Colorado and into Alabama. It’s still 1933, but Grace this time is no longer played by Nicole Kidman but by the considerably younger Bryce Dallas Howard, while James Caan has been replaced as her father by comparatively more youthful Willem Dafoe.
Pausing for a break outside the gates of an old plantation called Manderlay, they encounter the bedraggled residents of the compound, where slavery has continued in force for the nearly 70 years since the end of the Civil War.
Warned by her father to stay out of what he calls “a local matter,” the outraged Grace feels compelled to correct the injustice, sticking around after the death of matriarch Mam (Lauren Bacall) to restructure the society by freeing the blacks and consigning the surviving whites to hard labor and, in a caustic scene, having them serve a meal in blackface.
Script’s most intriguing conceit, especially with the Iraq experiment looming as the unmentioned backdrop, spins on the question of whether people can be force-fed democracy and be expected to practice it if they’ve not been prepared to do so. Seeing that the former slaves show no initiative to fix up their shacks or plant cotton at the proper time, Grace takes matters in hand by leading seminars on democracy and designates simple majority votes to arbitrate community decisions .
Despite setbacks such as a devastating dust storm (beautifully rendered under the self-imposed constrictions), Manderlay eventually thrives under Grace’s guidance, and after a record cotton harvest, she proclaims her students “graduate Americans.”
But, this being a von Trier film, good times can’t last for more than a moment. Troubling incidents for Grace start with the group’s vote to condemn to death an old woman charged with causing a sickly little girl to die by stealing her food; after arguing against the sentence, Grace insists upon carrying out the execution herself.
Then there is Grace’s intensely dicey relationship with Timothy (Isaach de Bankole), a so-called “proudly nigger” in the group’s pecking order. Distrustful and hostile from the beginning, Timothy has also been the source of increasing sensual tension in Grace. Edgy relationship climaxes in an extremely ambiguous scene that suggests aspects of a quasi-rape but proceeds nonetheless with Grace’s passive complicity.
Unsurprisingly, however, the act carries dire consequences. As in “Dogville,” Grace’s father returns at the end but, as before, it is Grace who wields (literally) the whip hand with the same mercilessness she exhibited last time around.
Due to the moderately more lively dramatization of the issues, better pacing and a more cohesive group of characters, “Manderlay” is less tedious than “Dogville,” even if it can be equally headache inducing to those not attuned to von Trier’s giggly camera style. Those eager to lap up what the Dogmatic one has to say will readily do so.
But the problem for others is the incessantly felt presence of a puppet master pulling strings to make his ideological points, and employing several techniques guaranteed to distance all but the preconverted: Baroque music, chapter headings that keep reminding how long the road ahead remains, very British narration by John Hurt in sardonically omniscient “Barry Lyndon” mode and spare sets that use a fence here, some columns there and a few other objects to augment black marks on the floor designed to outline the plantation.
Taking over for Kidman, who all but transcended her surroundings in “Dogville,” Howard, like Grace herself, gradually comes into her own in a role with a schoolteacherish side that would seem to substantially reflect the director himself. With minimal dialogue, de Bankole conveys a smoldering, powerful presence, and Dafoe invests his well-groomed mobster with welcome wry humor.
Most equivocal character in the piece is the former “house slave,” Wilhelm, played by Danny Glover. Wilhelm is the man most complicit in the continuation of slavery at Manderlay over the decades as “the lesser of two evils,” the author of the hierarchy among blacks and the one who declares that it was “too soon” for his people to make decisions for themselves. Thesp puts the character over with firm and quiet control.
Among the many supporting thesps, Zeljko Ivanek makes a striking impression as an itinerant gambler employed by whites to cheat blacks out of their savings. Returnees from “Dogville” such as Chloe Sevigny and Jeremy Davies have next to nothing to do here.
Von Trier does a minor variation on his “Dogville” ploy, running final credits over photos of racist oppression and violence in the U.S. to the accompaniment of David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”
In Cannes, von Trier announced that he has postponed the final installment of the trilogy, “Washington,” intended to be set in the nation’s capital during the ’40s, saying he needs to wait because “I’m not mature enough” to make it now.