Lars Von Trier doesn’t hate America. Well, perhaps he does – I certainly don’t know the man – but if so, it’s not obvious from his films.
If anything, the maker of Dancer in the Dark and Dogville is simply misanthropic, not holding a lot of hope for humanity in general, whether American, Japanese, or Danish. It’s true that several of his films have focused on the United States, but there are perfectly good artistic reasons for that.
America is a land of contradictions. It is revered, both by its citizens and by foreigners, as the land of opportunity, a beacon of freedom and democracy. Yet it is still plagued by most of the same problems as the rest of the world: There’s plenty of poverty, racism, and inequality; there was slavery even as the founding fathers declared that all men were created equal. What sets America apart, at least from my view as a close-but-not-too-close Canadian, is the willfull blindness and devout patriotism that seems to arise against any criticisms, legitimate or not. “My Country right or wrong” often morphs into “Love it or leave it” and “You’re either with us or against it.”
It’s this contradiction Von Trier finds fascinating, as he showed in Dogville: Smalltown folk who look friendly and welcoming, but are ultimately as mean and selfish as any gangster. People who want to feel as though they’re doing the right thing but can’t quite stop looking out for themselves. With its stark minimalism, Dogville was an incredible, if rather unpleasant, look at transparent motivations and small-town life.
Manderlay is the thematic, and largely literal, sequel to that film. Grace, now played by Bryce Dallas Howard, finds herself on a plantation where slavery was never abolished: The blacks toil in the fields and live in shacks while the white owners live in relative luxury. She finds this appalling, naturally, and manages to upset the status quo: Soon the blacks own the plantation, while the whites find themselves indentured servants until the next harvest.
That act wasn’t good deed enough for Grace, who stays to help everyone adapt to their new lives. Having been under another man’s thumb for all their lives, the blacks don’t quite know what to do with their freedom, so Grace sets about teaching them the ways of business and democracy, and perhaps even civilization.
The central metaphor, then, is set, and it’s not entirely about America. Grace could very well be any Western nation, caught up in the ideal of rescuing and civilizing a people who may or may not be ready for it, or even want it. Grace quickly changes from an equal to an authoritative schoolmistress in Manderlay, as she realizes the people she’s freed aren’t as ready for freedom as she’d thought. At the same time, she sees it her duty to show the whites what it’s like to be degraded and treated as property. Grace may be shocked and appalled by the slaves of Manderlay, but ultimately her attitudes towards them might not be terribly different from those that owned the slaves.
It’s not at all subtle, but that’s not Von Trier’s aim. He’s clearly of the thought that many people won’t pay much attention unless you slap them in the face, so Manderlay is, at times, just as uncomfortable and disturbing as Dogville. It’s about race, and people’s perceptions of it, and all the superiority and alienation that comes with it.
The decision to make Manderlay a more-or-less sequel to Dogville is an interesting one, though not without its drawbacks: One cannot help but feel that anyone would be a downgrade from Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Grace, and Howard, though earnest, is expectedly not quite up to snuff. Howard is perfectly capable, and her youth and enthusiasm suit Grace’s new role quite well, but it’s simple one of those unfortunate comparisons. Even if Von Trier wanted to maintain certain elements from Dogville, he could have focused Manderlay around Grace’s sister, or some other friend or relation.
Von Trier continues Dogville‘s set conceit of shooting on a sound stage, with buildings marked in outline on the ground and only a few props and accessories actually present. It doesn’t seem quite as striking here, in part because we’re now familiar with it, but also because it doesn’t really tie in to the film’s central metaphor. Dogville was about a small town where everyone knew everyone and no one had secrets; the idea of a set without walls displayed the truthful hypociscy quite effective. But here, it just seems like and idea Von Trier liked and wanted to use again. It’s still a creative approach, and forces the actors to really work for their supper, but one wonders if it won’t grow old by the time Von Trier makes the final film in his American trilogy.
Manderlay both shines and suffers in the shadow of Dogville: The first film prepared us for Von Trier’s vision, and introduced themes that are quite resonant in the second; many of the points, as well as the contrast of Grace’s reactions to the two situations, are built upon nicely. But at the same time, it doesn’t feel quite as fresh, and having to replace a leading lady like Nicole Kidman is no easy task. It is still a very good film, if a challenging and uncomfortable one, and displays Von Trier’s top-drawer filmmaking and insightful, if morbid, grasp of the darker elements of human nature. Those who enjoy Von Trier’s films (as much as one can enjoy such daunting pessimism) will find much to like, but those who dislike him will find little that is new, and those who are unfamiliar would be best served to start elsewhere.