March 16-22, 2006
Movies : ArticleFree at Last
Lars von Trier's incautious slavery parable strikes at uncomfortable truths.
Manderlay employs the same ostentatiously threadbare style as its predecessor: painted borders and cutaway sets, declamatory performances and storybook voiceover (performed with smug deliberateness by John Hurt). And, like Dogville, Manderlay is explicitly conceived as an allegory about the United States, the second in a proclaimed trilogy (although Trier recently announced a delay in the production of the third installment, Washington, fueling speculation that the trilogy could end up one of Trier's many unfinished projects). But although the two movies look and sound the same, their differences are more profound than their similarities. Even their common roles have been recast: Nicole Kidman's childlike Grace has been replaced by Bryce Dallas Howard's petulant teenager, while her gangster father has transformed from gruff James Caan into wry Willem Defoe.
Dogville didn't find its target until the closing credits, but Manderlay takes dead aim from the start. For one, Manderlay's subject, the lingering legacy of American slavery, is far more cutting than Dogville's vague parable of Depression-era self-interest. As Grace and her father travel east from Dogville's smoking ruin, they happen upon Manderlay, an Alabama plantation where emancipation has never taken root; 70 years after the end of the Civil War, Lauren Bacall's Mam still rules with a firm hand. (Bacall is one of several Dogvillians to make a repeat appearance in a different role, creating the sense of a Brechtian repertory company that has found its next stop.) Grace, who here is less a milk-skinned Pollyanna than a self-righteous sophomore, is horrified by the situation, and tells her father's motorcade to go on ahead. She will stay behind and put things right.
Mam soon dies, leaving Grace to breathe life into Manderlay's moral vacuum. Using the gangsters her father has left behind, she quickly establishes a new order, availing herself of what the narrator calls "the astonishing good will that parties always evidence in the company of rapid-firing machine pistols." At this point in the story (about a third of the way through the film's two-hour length), Manderlay practically begs to be taken as an allegory of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, with Grace as the well-meaning but tone-deaf imposer of democracy on a populace that is clearly unready for it. (Danny Glover's ex-overseer makes a convincing Ahmed Chalabi.) Before long, Manderlay's residents are voting not only on matters of import, but on whether a loud-mouthed joker ought to be constrained from laughing after dark; they even determine the time of day by a show of hands. But Trier isn't content to stop there. Manderlay burrows through layers of meaningfirst Iraq, then slaveryand if you don't keep readjusting your frame of reference, it's easy to get left behind. Although Manderlay has the structure of a fable, its terms don't hold.
That ends up being quite a good thing, since the movie's contention that the ex-slaves aren't ready for freedom comes close to justifying slavery. Rather than embracing their newfound liberty, Manderlay's ex-slaves are a shambling, disorganized lot, incapable even of providing for their own survival. Without Grace, it seems as if they'd starve to death before tending to their own crops. But the enslavement that interests Trier is not historical but existential. By ending slavery and giving Manderlay's residents access to the tools of democratic capitalism, Grace is convinced that she has given the slaves everything they need to emancipate themselves. In a nutshell, she offers them the American dream: Work hard, and you may achieve everything you desire. But as Manderlay points out, the absence of restrictions is not the only condition for freedom. Without money, the ex-slaves are immediately subject to predatory lenders; without power, they are unable to define the terms of their existence. In fact, this is not so different from what happened to freed slaves in the Reconstruction-era South, and bears a painful resemblance to the outward and internalized racism of our own era. But, really, it applies to anyone who feels that the seemingly endless assortment of options for purchase and consumption still offers little real choice.
Manderlay is still, at times, a deeply problematic film. Grace's sexual obsession with a headstrong ex-slave played by Isaach de Bankolé is a little too close to the Mandingo complex present in too many of Trier's films to be entirely dismissed as satire. But as Defoe's big daddy points out early on, "However much they go on about civilization and democracysexy, it ain't." Trier toys blithely with the darkest episode in American history. But, in throwing caution to the wind, he hits on ideas most American directors would be too sensitive to address.
Written and directed by Lars von Trier An IFC release Opens Friday at Ritz East