I seem to have forgotten when I set my Netflix list that Manderlay was not so much a sequel to Dogville as it was a continuation of the story but with different actors (more on that in a second). The part in italics comes from the review for Dogville because they apply to Manderlay.
Lars von Trier is a difficult director who stretches the bounds of emotion in a way that no other director I’m aware of can even consider. He revels in and exploits the talents of the worser angels. In the more mainstream Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark he makes us confront the worst that one man can do to another person (in each case a woman). Friends turn out to be otherwise, so the ground not only shifts around the character but the viewer too. Typically the emotional reactions are rage, despair, or both.
John Hurt narrates the film where Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) and her mob kingpin father (now played by Willem Dafoe) about a very odd plantation in Alabama that is still living under the rules of slavery despite emancipation 70 years before.
Grace is horrified by what she sees. A “slave” is about to be whipped. Grace, with gangsters backing her up, Grace stops the punishment and gets moralistic all over Mam (Lauren Bacall). Mam asks her a favor: to burn a book under her mattress. Grace refuses and when the old woman dies, makes a decision.
After the events that ended Dogville (no plot spoilers here), she has her father make good on a promise. She stays to bring liberty and freedom to a host of “slaves;”in this case, the third generation of truly “free” people to be such.
Wilhelm (Danny Glover) was Mam’s right hand. He and the rest are submissive towards Grace who is doing all she can to explain why that should not be the case. She gives lessons about freedom and democracy and thinks she is doing a grand thing. Event after event tells her that she is not quite in the position she thinks she is in, but she soldiers on.
In short, Grace seeks to unmake a situation made by white men towards black men and Manderlay is a sociological follow-through.
Manderlay has many of the hallmarks of a Lars von Trier film (the worst instincts raised put into situations where they will thrive and in a way where the viewer cannot exit and, in a way, is complicit; there is a knife twist that you want to happen but still feel just a wee bit bad about; it also has the obligatory “rape” scene that seems to be his signature, though this one is a bit different). Like this “different” rape scene, the film wanders in a way that doesn’t quite work. But I must admit from the outset of this analysis that it is from southern eyes (more on this below).
Manderlay is a play on a soundstage. The format is Our Town with limited sets few props but the topic is anything otherworldly in comparison to its bucolic analogue.
Dogville, set the same way, worked because, despite being in the Rockies it could be anywhere. The population of that horrid little town could exist in any country on the planet. Manderlay is tied to place and to time. Place and time are not abstractions in the South. Where and when are as important in the telling as the who and what; in fact the who and what don’t really matter without the where and when.
Knowing this and being part of it my entire life, it is impossible for me to avoid going into it, but I will cover it in a personal space below.
It is extremely interesting that the events in Manderlay happen after Dogville but both Grace and her father are at least fifteen years younger. In the case of the father I think it is just for the sake of consistency with regards to Grace. The Grace in Dogville learned what she did by being part of it (something an older person would tend to do); the Grace in Manderlay is young and idealistic and imposes these items on others (again, as someone of that age would tend to do). Using a Southern pest: Grace is the person who brought kudzu to the area—the intentions were oh so good but once begun could not be stopped.
In the course of her education, where she tries to teach her understanding of democracy, she confuses it with, as often as not, what seems to be full on hippy commune activity—again well intentioned “communism” but poorly played. She is a city girl come to the country who knows that trees make lumber but once a tree is down . . . um . . . oops. Sorry, my bad. I didn’t know why it was there and I’m frightfully sorry that one of your children died because of the dust storm the trees were there to mitigate. Please accept these tears as my sincere apology. Oh, but look on the bright side, you have roofs that don’t leak.
This behavior is not limited to place and time. Well, you can argue it does have to do with time since an older Grace would likely not have made the mistakes or if she did they would not be so severe if for no other reason than that she would have a better chance to know whose counsel to trust.
One thing that Mr. von Trier gets exactly right is the slippery little imp: the Southern Gothic. Told right, this demon is pitch on both ends with some fantastically dark humor between. Yes there is fright, but there is laughter too.
The acting is strong. Ms. Howard is outstanding in a very difficult role—the lead women in von Trier films never have an easy go of it. Each other character has two different cogs that appear to work one way for the viewer, but works entirely different from inside and the actors pull this off without a hiccup. This is symbolized beautifully by a card sharp played by Zeljko Ivanek—he knows his opponents and deals from the bottom of the deck, so he sees the machine from inside and outside. He counsels in riddles but Grace is so disgusted by what he does she refuses to listen. The two scenes with Grace and the card sharp put the wrapper on the Southern Gothic in a subtle way that would be praised by many if not most of the mavens of that form.
The Southern Gothic structure and acting are very well done so I can’t say that it fails totally. The canvas is stretched just so and is taut. But something is missing, which is why I rate it one star fewer than Dogville.
The review is complete. What follows comes from almost four decades living in different spots in the South and at minimum two decades of study of the literature, language, and culture. What I say is probably not politically correct so I warn any reader now.
Mr. von Trier chose a bad spot to tell his story. He is a talented writer so the structure wouldn’t be problem. The problem is that a Dane, no matter how talented and smart and gifted can look at the South as it is now and explain it with any real clarity. Yes, sociologists do this sort of thing, but they are scholars who follow a set of rules governed by their peers—artists of all sorts don’t have the same shield. And that covers only now; there is even less way for a Dane to look at the South in the late 1920s and really get it. Ask someone like me to explain it and we will likely be able to give a cogent answer, but it will be long in the telling (as is this) and there will be contentious points. And we live in it.
Before any knives get sharpened, let me shift just a little. Set the same film in Harlan County West Virginia in 1973 (I say this because there is a documentary that would allow for a type of case study: Harlan County USA). Grace can join the other women in maintaining the coal mining strike so the miners can join the union and gain all the protections. Grace could come in with all the good intentions and lead the way to the United Mine Workers’ fold. Hooray. Except that now they are part of a group and if an operation in Pennsylvania strikes, well then the men in Harlan County have to strike too. Oops, sorry, my bad, and no, I’m sorry I don’t have the money to help you pay your electricity bill; I mean it isn’t really my fault that the union doesn’t pay a living wage while everyone is on strike.
Collective bargaining is something I think can be understood universally without regards to time or place. By trying to tackle equality in the South in 1920s Alabama is the same thing as trying to shake honey off of your hands. Mr. von Trier falls into the same general trap that catches Grace.
He sees a wrong that, thanks to many Southern writers and thousands of miles of film footage of the race riots, quite a few others have seen. The problem here is that the writers are tied to time and place and the footage is tied to time and place. Quickly, in 1963 the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed killing four girls. In the same year, three young men (two white and one black) were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi. These two and a host of other less memorable (today)events led to the passage of The Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act in 1965. These facts are generally known.
But let me bring up another topic: bussing school children. Where and when was the most recent place to have a physical, rock-throwing fight over this topic? Atlanta? Montgomery which had already seen the bus boycott in the middle 1950s? Richmond—the second capital of the Confederacy? Charleston South Carolina, spot of the kick off of the “late unpleasant events” as my great aunts called it?
No. It was Boston in 1970. Time and place matter and Mr. von Trier shows that he just doesn’t really understand how to handle it. Grace is graceless and not in a way matching anyone her age. The South at this time was still a place where ladies stayed at home. The doors were unlocked or even left open. Tea was always ready and lemonade if it was the right time of year. I’m not kidding. When I was a kid I witnessed the same events I describe happening 40 years later. I walked into these houses belonging to my family or others and helped myself to lemonade and talked with the women.
Grace comes in like Patty Hearst in combat boots and a camouflage bandana stomps around on the rugs, smashes the tea pitcher, screams some nonsense then wants to storm out just as the ladies realize that something unexpected happened. This is not because the ladies are slow, but because they have no frame of reference for the events. They also don’t have the frame of reference to know what to do. No one has ever done that before, so I guess we’ll have to clean things up and hope it doesn’t happen again. And if it does, we’ll have a church meeting and see what we can do about this pitcher breaking loud woman.
I want to ask two general questions if you have gotten this far. If you are not from the American Southeast (I’ve said South all along without realizing that the frame of reference is going to be different for many readers) are you tied to or associated with time and place not only from your point of view but from the points of view of nearly all those around you? What is the first thought that comes to you when someone says “home?” I have puzzled with men and women I respect and men and women I loathe over those two questions. We tend to believe that home is where your parents’ took their first steps long before you took yours in the same place, just at a different time. By and large we believe this is something arcane to our part of the planet and one of two things is possible: it is true, or those beyond the time and place just let us think it’s true. If you have come this far, thank you kindly for allowing me to have my say.
Other Lars von Trier reviews:
Element of Crime
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A movie directed by Lars von Trier
Art House & International movie directed by Lars von Trier