In 2003, Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier began a daring film trilogy exploring the political mythology of the United States of America. A work of Brechtian agitprop, Dogville was an exciting parable that illuminated and baffled in equal measures. Many were angered that a European director who impishly admitted to having never visited American shores would make such a hypercritical film about the country; others found the harsh honesty refreshing. Last year, von Trier released part two, Manderlay, and while its meaning might be a little more clear, it's likely destined to be just as hotly debated.
Bryce Dallas Howard (The Lady in the Water) plays Grace, the reluctant daughter of a ruthless gangster. In Dogville, the role was filled by Nicole Kidman, who had to bow out of Manderlay due to a schedule conflict. As much as I love Nicole Kidman, the change ends up being a lucky turn for von Trier. Howard brings a different kind of physical power to the character, one that is well suited to Grace's current state of mind. In Dogville, Grace humbly submitted herself to the cruelty of her fellow man in an attempt to atone for her father's sins. Kidman gave her a quiet air of shame that made it believable for Grace to continue trusting the citizens of Dogville even after they turned against her and exploited her time and again. Howard picks up Grace after the good people of small-town Dogville, a sort of Depression-era Anytown U.S.A., have broken her. She is now more action oriented, ready to do good rather than just be good, and she's no longer afraid of harsh tactics. At the same time, Howard gives Grace an added na´vetÚ. Her guilt has taken a more liberal bend, and the trust that remains is now given to the downtrodden.
The change in lead actresses adds to the formalist experiment of the trilogy. Like its predecessor, Manderlay has a style of transparency. Rather than build fancy sets to portray the southern plantation of the story, von Trier has shot his film on an open soundstage. Lines on the floor mark where walls are, and only the most essential of props are given to the actors. Doors and running water are all pantomimed. It creates an air of unreality that reminds the audience that Manderlay is allegory, while also stripping away all distraction. Instead of focusing on the beauty of the art direction, as one might if Grace were talking to the plantation's workers in front of a glorious mansion, the audience has no choice but to focus entirely on what is being said. Adding to the sense of parable is John Hurt's wry narrative. Speaking in a slightly sinister voice, he delivers ironic jabs when von Trier needs to put a finer point on the events of the narrative.
And the narrative is one of considerable power. Grace and her father (now played by Willem Dafoe instead of James Caan) are traveling across the map (literally) in search of a town suitable for reestablishing their criminal enterprise. At one stop in Alabama, a woman runs out of a rich estate to ask for help. A man inside, Timothy (Isaach De BankolÚ, Miami Vice), is about to be whipped under the false accusation that he stole a bottle of wine. When Grace and daddy's hoodlums intercede, she discovers that Manderlay is a remote plantation that has never heard of the Emancipation Proclamation. When Grace confronts Manderlay's matriarch, Mam (the legendary Lauren Bacall, who played a different character in Dogville), the old woman is overcome with the shock of it. On her deathbed, she begs Grace to burn a book hidden in the room, and Grace refuses, choosing instead to let Mam's shame outlive her.
It is with this sort of bleeding-heart hubris that Grace plows forward, freeing the slaves of Manderlay. With the help of the house servant, Wilhelm (Danny Glover), and keeping a few of her gun-toting crew on hand for good measure (including Udo Kier and Jeremy Davies, both also from Dogville, though only Kier was in the same role), Grace establishes a new community on the plantation. Before he leaves, her father warns her that freedom is not so easy to come by, that oppression always finds its way back, but Grace doesn't heed his warning.
Point of fact, Grace ignores a lot of warnings over the course of Manderlay. If she believed everyone would live up to their word in Dogville, now she seems to think by refusing to listen to anyone, she can make her own word come alive. For instance, the book Mam is so desperate to see destroyed contains all the laws with which she governed Manderlay and ranks each slave on a number system meant to mark them by their various personalities. Just as Grace is cautioned that it will, this book brings about many troubles, including some of the surprising shocks of the film's climax.
von Trier is fearless in Manderlay. He's not willing to make an easy or safe film about the politics of race. Rather, he's made something that is dirty and complicated that doesn't shy away from historical stereotypes, duck uncomfortable language, or create any angelic figures to stand apart from the rest and lead everyone down the right path. While he has given Manderlay an American context, his real stock-in-trade in this trilogy is human nature. His morality plays are set in small towns, and thus they represent life in microcosm. The new community on the plantation is not idyllic, but instead is subject to individual error, selfishness, and the problems that any group of people might encounter when thrust into a way of life they are not used to. A lot of the choices they have to make may seem wrong, including ones that allowed for their pre-Civil War state of being to be preserved, but what von Trier is posing is that what seems so obviously correct from the outside is not always so easy on the inside. His willingness to be messy is a welcome relief after Hollywood's self-satisfied back-patting at this year's Oscars--an event that itself answers why it took a European director to make something like Manderlay. Unlike Crash, there are no magic twists of fate to pull people out their own myopic worldview, and not everyone is really noble-hearted deep down. Manderlay doesn't make us feel good about ourselves and fool us into thinking we're more progressive than we really are, and Grace's liberal guilt in action skewers such self-importance quite savagely. Hurt's voiceover jabs turn into a straight punch in the gut when he delivers his final thought, followed by the same kind of photo montage that ended Dogville, once more cut to David Bowie's "Young Americans."
At the close of Manderlay, Grace is lost in the wilderness. She is horrified by what she has witnessed, though it remains to be seen if she has yet realized her own complicity in it all. (The former slaves surely have, given the position they have attempted to put her in.) Given the marked turn the climax of Dogville drove Grace to, we can bet that she won't be the same person when Washington comes out next year as she was when Manderlay's credits rolled. Lars von Trier is 2/3 of his way to a masterpiece, though, so I for one can't wait to see where his misguided heroine ends up.