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Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands/France/Germany/United Kingdom 2005
Directed by
Lars von Trier
139 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Manderlay

Writer/director Lars von Trier’s sequel to Dogville (2003) is the second chapter of a planned trilogy about America. A perhaps too young and fresh-faced Bryce Dallas Howard (the daughter of Ron) steps into the role of Grace, played in the previous film by Nicole Kidman.and both films share the bare, umbrageous stage setting and both move at a measured  pace. Despite the communality of the setting and the characters (and some of the cast) Manderlay is more a re-working of the original film than a sequel as von Trier once again depicts his young heroine's disillusioning in the face of human nature.

After leaving Depression-era Dogville with her gangster father (Willem Dafoe, replacing James Caan) and the rest of his gang, Grace arrives at a decrepit Alabama plantation owned by an old woman (Lauren Bacall, reappearing from the earlier film but as a different character) who keeps a group of black people as if slavery still existed. When the old lady dies Grace sets about trying to trying to liberate them but doesn’t quite get the response she was looking for and finds that ideals do not exist in a vacuum.

Manderlay is a film that will (and did) divide audiences. Many American critics, not by any means exclusively right-wing ones, the latter who were particularly irked by the fact that von Trier had never been to their homeland, dismissed the film as an ill-informed diatribe.  This is rather strange as the response to Dogville was quite enthusiastic and the two films have more in common than not. The difference is that here von Trier makes black Americans complicit in their own enslavement.

Whilst I am not qualified to judge the merits or otherwise of the film as socio-political commentary on the American situation (the re-use of David Bowie's Young Americans over a montage of desperate poor, as was used in Dogville, is no more enlightening in this respect) I found its contrarian view of slavery and its overall account of the less-than-noble realities of human behaviour refreshing while the fact that von Trier also wrote the multi-faceted script makes it doubly impressive. Mercifully this time around von Trier drops the gratuitous shaky-cam whilst the shorter run time and better pacing than its predecessor also helps. 

Once again there is a self-aware didactic quality but there is a certain retro charm that again suggests American leftist writing of the 30s, the period in which the film is set. John Hurt’s sonorously avuncular narration is offset by the rather mannered literary dialogue while everything again takes place on a bare stage with only the barest of props and the setting being stenciled words on the floor.  Some will love this, others will find it tediously self indulgent. 

By going against the grain at both the levels of form and content von Trier has made things doubly difficult for mainstream audiences and thereby himself but that provocation is exactly what makes his films worth watching and Manderlay is no exception.

 

 

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