Saturday, February 25, 2006

Manderlay (Trier, 2005)

With blind confidence and some heavy weaponry, an oppressive dictator is overthrown. The force responsible quickly works to introduce democracy and rebuild the ravaged community only to find that liberation isn’t nearly as simple to achieve as one might think. Sound familiar? Lars von Trier follows up Dogville, his scathing critique of American isolationism, with yet another well-placed kick to the proverbial groin. Set on an Alabama plantation that is somehow still practicing slavery 70 years after Lincoln, Manderlay is a darkly humorous allegory ridiculing American involvement in the Middle East. But most interestingly and provocatively of all, Trier the Dane also explores the relationship between the two regions in sexual terms with both the dominant and the submissive working together to fulfill the other’s latent needs. For years Trier has been accused of artistic sadism; now he has created a film that is indeed Sadean.

Of course, Manderlay employs the same minimalist devices and conventions that were laid out in Dogville. While some have complained that this approach is needless artistic hooey, Manderlay demonstrates definitively that the reduced emphasis on realism is actually a necessary component of conveying the underlying message effectively. After all, what sense would it make to recreate an alternate 1930’s America with slaves when doing so would only dilute the film’s central metaphor and distract audiences from the immediacy of the film’s thematic thrust? Stripped of extraneous flourishes, Manderlay rightly becomes an ideological battlefield rather than a literal location. The allegory Trier employs is deliciously wicked and sophisticated. Though the film centers on characters that are slaves of the American South, they are truly stand-ins for oppressed people of a very different sort. It is fairly common for artists to use allegory in this fashion – to provide a sense of distance and allow us to process complicated ideas in simple terms. However, in this case, the effect is circular. Trier illuminates American policy in the present by using the language and images of the past. Why reopen old wounds some may ask. Perhaps because those wounds were never healed to begin with.

While much hubbub has been made about the replacement of Nicole Kidman with Bryce Dallas Howard in the role of Grace, the reality is that it truly makes little difference. Grace is not a real human being anyway, but rather a symbol. It may actually help the trilogy to allow a different lead to show us a different aspect of Grace. In the role, Howard is appropriately earnest and naïve. She is filled with good intentions and the desire to bring justice where she sees misery. Unfortunately, her desire to implement change far exceeds her ability to perceive what consequences those changes might reap. One of the great joys of Manderlay is the way that it packs the same kind of visceral punch that made Dogville so memorable, but does so in a completely different manner. Once again, the knife twists … but in the opposite direction. In general, the cast of Manderlay (having the benefit of following Dogville) seem more confident of their purpose and thematic goal they are striving to achieve. Willem Dafoe in particular, stepping into the role of Grace’s father that was vacated by James Caan, handles his dialogue with authority and nuance whereas his predecessor occasionally seemed somewhat confused by his own character. Danny Glover shows that there is a highly skilled stage actor beneath action-film rep, masterfully unfolding a character that instinct tells us must surely be more important than he initially seems. And, of course, John Hurt’s voice-over is top notch, providing the film with a witty, detached perspective that effectively conveys Trier’s underappreciated sense of humor.

At the time of this writing, Manderlay holds a paltry 49% rating on the Tomatometer. It causes me untold bewilderment to see a film like this exploring race relations get savaged while a contemptible piece of garbage like Crash is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. But oh yes, I forgot. Lars von Trier has never visited America. So why on earth does he know us a hell of a lot better than Paul Haggis? With Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, Lars von Trier has created three of the best films of the past 10 years. Now it’s time to make that four.



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