As it has become typical of the reception to Lars Von Trier’s films, who has created something of a niche for himself as cinema’s pre-eminent bad boy, Manderlay arrived with its fair share of marketing and critical fuss, although a less hysterical one compared with the film’s companion, Dogville, released two years ago. It seems like this was what Von Trier was looking for. While Dogville was designed as a radical formal experiment, Manderlay seems to have been conceived as a kind of breezier, more playful sequel to exhaust a two-film genre ruled over by the director. And make no mistake: this is as a director’s film as it gets, with the actors turned almost into marionettes in the darkness of the soundstage where the film is set (Manderlay looks even more like a play than Dogville) and subjugated to Von Trier’s authorial demands.
By and large, Manderlay looks like a karaoke of Dogville. Past the aesthetic pleasant shock of the latter, Von Trier invested the sequel with humour and even more ironic truisms that may offend the intelligence at points but which make sense as part of the whole. The case here is of meaning lying in the sum of all parts, not so much in the rambling fragments of the film.
The young, earnest-looking Bryce Dallas Howard replaces Nicole Kidman in the role of Grace and it takes some time to getting used to her, as if an impostor had stolen the part that Kidman played with unbelievable loveliness and charisma. Once the shock subdues, we get used to Howard’s Grace, who is more earthy, callow and American. Conversely, William Dafoe in the role played by James Caan in Dogville is an uncompensated-for loss.
Manderlay is the name of a plantation that Grace, her father and their gangsters come across after leaving Dogville (their car trajectory is shown in a stunning aerial shot of a dotted-lined map). A black woman knocks on the window of their car and tells them that behind the iron gates that open to Manderlay white masters still keep black slaves (the year is 1933) and one of them, Timothy (Isaach de Bankolé) is about to be punished with the whip.
Backed by her father’s gun-powered gang, Grace frees the slaves and starts a kind of cooperative where the ex-slaves start working for profit while their fallen masters are treated as slaves as part of an educational programme of sorts.
Like in Dogville, human relations turn out to be a mocking game of deceptive appearances. Without going into plot details, Manderlay is a sarcastic take on the human tendency, especially on the part of the white race, to assume it knows what’s better for others, a tendency that finds its most eloquent and unquestioned expression in the democratic credo based on ‘majority’ rule. In fact, it is an allegorical look at inherent paradoxes of democratic regimes.
This is not a film with historic accuracy (John Hurt’s voice-over, slacker than in Dogville, includes the term politically correct in its current usage) nor does it try to plumb America’s guilt over slavery. It really is a simple tale of how human relations are inherently corrupt and and we all play a part in the theatre of civilisation.
While Dogville was a formally stricter as well as a subtler film, Manderlay is more accessible and, despite the shortcomings paraded during its long 140 minutes, Von Trier’s skills as director and writer ensures that the revelations in the final part of the film make it work in hindsight.
Manderlay is currently on general release in the UK.