Manderlay (Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands/France/Germany/U.K., 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Let me start with a few brief editorial comments about Lars von Trier. Key to understanding my views about Manderlay is my disclosure of a belief that in order to be able to criticize something, you have to have first-hand familiarity with it. Von Trier has never lived in the United States. In fact, due to his airplane phobia, he has never visited North America. But that doesn't stop him from attacking the fabric of the United States' society. (Diatribes against government policies, especially foreign policies, are another matter, but that's not what's at issue here.) His anti-American stance has often been evident, but he dropped all pretense of subtlety in Dogville. I would be the first to admit that some of what von Trier has to say is accurate, but it's hard to take such accusations seriously when they come from someone who is relying on secondhand information. The United States is not well regarded in many places abroad, and no doubt some of this global acrimony has informed von Trier's perspective. He presents the bad unfiltered by the good, and both can be found in this country - a fact that is often neglected in one-sided political tracts. It can become tiresome to watch von Trier bash the United States while realizing that he doesn't have a full understanding of what he's attacking.

Manderlay is the middle segment of a trilogy and, like its predecessor, Dogville, it uses a predominantly bare stage as its setting: an Alabama town called Manderlay where slavery exists in 1930. The conceit is interesting, but von Trier places plot and characters in the background, preferring instead to get on a soap box. His targets are numerous, the most inflammatory of which are the sorry state of race relations in America and how we as a society will give up freedom for safety. He makes a point that the plight of blacks in this country is a lingering result of their history of exploitation (a charge it's hard to deny). The moralizing, whether right or wrong, is so shrill that it becomes difficult to view Manderlay as anything other than an anti-American diatribe. Calling the film "liberal" would be a mistake, since von Trier eviscerates "progressive" white do-gooders who provide "aid" to blacks, arguing that those people typically do more harm than good. The portrait of America painted by the director in Manderlay is bleaker than anything hinted at in Dogville.

Bryce Dallas Howard steps into the role essayed by Nicole Kidman in the prior cinematic chapter. The change of actresses isn't noticeable since the character doesn't linger in the mind's eye. She's Grace, the daughter of a prominent gangster (Willem Dafoe, replacing James Caan). While driving through Alabama, Grace is drawn to the plight of the blacks in the town of Manderlay. When she learns they are slaves, she demands that her father "give" her a contingent of his men so she can deal with the situation. After confronting the dying matriarch (Lauren Bacall), she announces that the slaves are all free. However, with nowhere to go and no idea of how to survive in the outside world, they elect to stay in Manderlay and develop a community. Grace remains with them. While there, she relies on the wisdom of the oldest resident, Wilhelm (Danny Glover), and develops an attraction for the strong, proud Timothy (Isaach De Bankolé).

Manderlay's dialogue is as stagy and false as it is filled with moralizing, and that makes it difficult to endure lengthy conversations. It's like hearing the work of a writer who didn't bother to read the lines out loud to hear if they sound credible. We're also bombarded by the running commentary of narrator John Hurt, who seemingly won't shut up for more than a few minutes at a time. Hurt overwhelms us with observations that beat us over the head with a point von Trier has made elsewhere.

From a purely narrative standpoint, there are some interesting aspects to Manderlay, including a bit of delicious irony near the end, but von Trier is so determined that no viewer see this as anything other than an allegory that he sabotages his story by burying it under layers of artificiality. It's the same approach as in Dogville, but done more openly and with less grace here. At least in Dogville, it was possible to become involved in the lives and tribulations of the characters. In Manderlay, the only individual to undergo anything resembling development is Grace. She is surrounded by dark-skinned ciphers.

Howard, the daughter of director Ron Howard who garnered notice for her star turn in The Village, acquits herself admirably, and becomes the only thing worth paying attention to in this mess. Howard buries herself in the role, reportedly having watching Dogville eight times prior to filming and agreeing to do a full-frontal nude scene which will likely be the most explicit thing she will do on screen during the course of her career.

There is thought-provoking material in Manderlay, but its source and the manner in which it is presented encourages the cynical viewer to dismiss it as the ravings of someone with a myopic agenda to pursue. Nevertheless, the questions posed by Manderlay remain even if the vehicle through which those questions are posed loses its wheels. Some of what von Trier has to say is on-target, but some is simplistic - precisely what one would expect from a distant observer who views things in an abstract, black-and-white manner. Instead of presenting the issues in the stew of a compelling narrative, von Trier's ego-driven need for attention and confrontation forces him to throw it in our faces in a way that many will find off-putting. In the final analysis, Manderlay is plagued by moralizing so strident and a style so artificial that the story never has a chance to speak to an audience.

Manderlay (Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands/France/Germany/U.K., 2005)

Run Time: 2:19
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1