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February 21, 2006

Von Trier's heavy-handed Manderley aims for a few too many targets

Manderlay, the latest film by Danish director Lars von Trier, is not so much a position piece as it is an imprecise spray of angry criticism. Nothing is safe from its venom. It attacks democracy and fascism, capitalism and communism, freedom and slavery, and basically every other formation of power that has ever been attempted.

The result is nowhere near as good as its predecessor, Dogville. However, the chalk-lined soundstage, which serves as a minimalist set in both films, remains an effective means of communicating feeling. As a result, the film is a little more engrossing and a lot less boring than it deserves to be.

Many of the problems with the film are epitomized by a single sequence. It comes in a series of photographs documenting the persecution of blacks in American history, shown under the closing credits. The photograph happens to include Manhattan’s Twin Towers in the background. The camera cannot resist a slight zoom in on them.

Does this mean that the destruction of the World Trade Center was caused by white supremacy? More likely, it means that von Trier is anti-American enough that he no longer sees a crystal-clear distinction between one social ill and another in this twisted failure of a nation that he criticizes from the other side of the Atlantic. Oh, and did I mention that along with these photographs of black oppression, there is also one of George W. Bush? There may be an argument to be made here about how Dubya is comparable to the KKK and James Earl Ray, but it isn’t articulated. This is mere incitement on von Trier’s part. Subtle, he ain’t.

Manderlay is the second in von Trier’s sardonically titled trilogy, USA—Land of Opportunities. Its first chapter, Dogville, was criticized for being long, misanthropic, and blindly anti-American. But I found it to be much more than that. It was very precise in creating an allegory that was interesting enough to be watched as a plain narrative, but rich in comparisons to human foibles, American and otherwise.

In Dogville, Grace (Nicole Kidman) sought refuge from gangsters in a small Rocky Mountain town, only to have the xenophobic residents slowly turn against her. In Manderlay, Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) travels to Alabama in 1933 to find an estate where slavery still exists, decades after the end of the Civil War. She intervenes with good intentions, only to rediscover that humans have many, many shortcomings. One Internet Movie Database user commented in an early reaction: “Von Trier 2, mankind zero.”

I’m not so willing to declare an unequivocal victory for the Danish filmmaker. His screenplay is clunky and convoluted, containing only a few moments of genuine power. There aren’t characters so much as there are walking philosophy books—clichéd books, at that. I started an informal tally of every loaded, unwieldy phrase used. After hearing about “living proof of the devastating power of oppression,” “psychological division of the slaves,” “negative inherited behavior patterns,” and, perhaps most awkwardly, “the pulsating explosions in [Grace’s] nether regions [taking] over her world,” I lost count.

The unfortunate assignment of uttering these lines falls disproportionately on John Hurt, who narrates the film. Having a special gift for classy sarcasm, he is one of the film’s greatest assets. But remedying the awkwardness of this screenplay is beyond even his powers. The rest of the cast is far less successful in carrying the enormous load. Bryce Dallas Howard is a noticeable failure, bringing the same inelegant lack of rhythm to her lines that Natalie Portman brought to the Star Wars prequels. The two actresses sound quite similar, and I dearly hope Howard takes a cue from Portman in seeking out better-written films. The rest of the cast is acceptable, though we do not see nearly enough of Lauren Bacall or Willem Dafoe, both of whom light up the screen in their brief scenes.

Altogether, in fact, Manderlay is not without its charms. Once the story gets humming, there is a fatalistic inevitability to the whole thing that is reminiscent of those wonderful episodes of Seinfeld in which half a dozen plot threads converge through ridiculous coincidences. Of course, the effect is different when played for tragedy. Once the pattern becomes clear, we can see how a character will fail from a mile away, making the feeling of hopelessness all the more palpable. Also, the bare-bones set is used well enough that we often forget its limitations and accept it as a direct conduit to the characters themselves. During a dust storm, for instance, the visual image is nothing like a dust storm, but it is artistic and memorable in its own right.

Unfortunately, these devices are only parts of a mediocre whole. Manderlay does not add up as argument, narrative, or prose; it does not add up on its own, nor does it add up as a continuation of Dogville. It just plain doesn’t add up. Some words that I feel I have heard somewhere before come to mind: long, misanthropic, and blindly anti-American. Von Trier has finally lived up to his reviews.