Dir/scr: Lars Von Trier. Den-Swe-Fr-UK-Ger-Neth.2005. 139mins.
The road to hell is pavedwith the noblest of intentions in Manderlay, the stunning second film inLars Von Trier's American trilogy. A philosophical debate on slavery, equality,oppression, free will and racism, it will inevitably be read as anti-Americanin general and a specific response to the recent war in Iraq.
Von Trier's intentions seemmore wide-ranging; attacking the awful peril of those naive enough to believethey know what is best for the world. It's just that the most glaring,insistent examples that support his view are the foreign adventures of asuperpower like America in situations like Vietnam, Chile and Iraq.
The risk, of course, is that Manderlay willsimply preach to the converted. It is still an experimental, challenging filmand expectations of its appeal will need to reflect those realities. It doeshave a shorter running time than Dogville and is a powerful enough pieceto attract the critical debate that would allow it to match or even surpass thepatchy arthouse success of its predecessor. It seems unlikely to suffer fromthe absence of an A-list draw like Nicole Kidman.
Von Trier claims that his inspiration for Manderlaycame from the work of Danish photographer/writer Jacob Holt and from criticJean Paulham's preface to Histoire d'O which details the aftermath of arebellion in 19th-century Barbados where the freed slaves quicklyreverted to their old quarters and their previous lives.
His intellectual inspiration may have changed but hisaesthetic approach is a direct continuation of his work in Dogville. Thefilm is shot on a vast, bare studio set with chalk marks outlining thebuildings whilst the surrounding forest and countryside are left to theimagination. The story is divided into eight chapter headings and John Hurt'swry, amused narration is like a fine ruby port that accompanies a maturecheese.
The Grace of Dogville is now played by BryceDallas Howard. Younger and less experienced than Nicole Kidman, she makes Gracemore naive and wilful; determined to take the moral high ground because lifehas yet to challenge her idealism. She is a cheerleader for liberty whosejudgment is rarely clouded by doubt.
In 1933, Grace and her father (Dafoe, substitutingfor James Caan) arrive in Alabama. They stop outside the gates of theplantation Manderlay where Grace is horrified to discover that they stillpractise slavery as if the Civil War had never been fought and abolition neverachieved. She cannot in all conscience stand back and let this continue. Shehas to instigate regime change.
Her visit coincides with the death of the plantationowner Mam (Bacall). The handwritten Mam's Law has provided all the rules forhow the plantation has been run. Grace now takes control. She promises to stayuntil the first harvest has been gathered and starts instructing everyone in abrave new world of equality and democracy, whether that's what they want ornot.
Pursuing her vision of bettering their lives, she isalso unsettled by her erotic fantasies surrounding Timothy (de Bankole), whoclaims to be from the proud Munsi tribe of Africa.
Destined to repeat the mistakes of her past and neverlearn from history, Grace is left to observe as her experiment unravels andlife refuses to behave in the way she has ordained.
More tightly scripted and less gruelling than Dogville,Manderlay keeps up a running commentary on events through a wry,sarcastic narration that injects a welcome degree of humour into the film. Theexperimental nature of the film is less of a novelty this time and less of adistraction from the ideas. There are less actors just around for windowdressing and memorable performances are supplied by Danny Glover as Wilhelm,the community's elder statesman, Mona Hammond as Old Wilma and Isaach deBankole as the proud, wary Timothy.
The film ends, as Dogville did, with DavidBowie's Young Americans played over a kaleidoscopic photomontage of images thatrange from a Ku Klux Klan meeting to the Rodney King beating, George Bush at prayerand Martin Luther King at his final rest, American soldiers in Vietnam and theGulf, the Twin Towers and much more. It is an emotionally overwhelmingrecapitulation of the price that is paid by those who take the moral highground and by a society that tolerates bigotry and is as provocative as thefilm itself.
Zentropa Productions13 APS
Isabella Films International
Manderlay Ltd/Sigma 111 Films Ltd
Memfis Film International AB
Pain Unlimited Filmproduktion GMBH
Trust Film Sales
Peter Aalbek Jensen
Anthony Dod Mantle
Molly Malene Stensgaard
Bryce Dallas Howard
Isaach De Bankole