Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 10/17/06 w/ Additional Edits.
When Lars von Trier released Dogville at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, some loved the film for its experimental approach to filmmaking but others found the film to be very anti-American in which, the plane-phobic von Trier has never been to. Dogville was the first of a three-part trilogy the Danish enfant terrible has planned in this exploration of America during the Great Depression. Whereas Dogville explored the elements of American politics and its foreign policy, some American critics were upset over von Trier's point-of-view. The result of the controversy only troubled von Trier's plan financially over the trilogy as his Dogville star Nicole Kidman decided back out due to scheduling conflicts. In 2005, von Trier returned to the Cannes Film Festival with the second part of USA-Land of Opportunities trilogy entitled Manderlay.
Written & directed by von Trier, Manderlay continues the story of Grace's exploration to America where she and her mob-boss father leave Dogville behind and stumble upon a Southern plantation called Manderlay where to the shock of the outsiders, slavery is still around. In an attempt to take control and free the slaves, Grace tries to impose her own ideals in order to make the slaves think freely only to cause more trouble after swaying her father's warning. Taking over the role of Grace for Nicole Kidman is Bryce Dallas Howard and taking over the role of her father for James Caan is Willem Dafoe. Also starring von Trier regulars Udo Kier, Jean-Marc Barr, Zeljko Ivanek, and from Dogville, Jeremy Davies, Chloe Sevigny, Lauren Bacall, and as narrator, John Hurt. Joining the cast for Manderlay along with Howard and Dafoe are Issach de Bankole and Danny Glover. Manderlay is a fierce, uncompromising study of race in America from the controversial Lars von Trier.
After the events at the town of Dogville, Grace and her father drive through the American South where they stop at a plantation called Manderlay. Grace sees a young black woman running away claiming she's about to be whipped. Grace realizes that the plantation still has slavery around as she meets the plantation's owner Mam (Lauren Bacall) who is falling ill. With an aging slave named Wilhelm (Danny Glover), Mam gives Grace a book of her laws as she lays on her deathbed. After telling Wilhelm that slavery has been abolished 70 years ago, Wilhelm reveals that none of the slaves know what to do with this new freedom as Grace decides to help them get in touch with modern America. Grace's father is convinced that Grace is only bringing trouble as he reluctantly lends Grace a few of her men including Niels (Jeremy Davies), Mr. Robinson (Jean-Marc Barr), Mr. Kirspe (Udo Kier), and business consultant Joseph (Teddy Kempner).
With the slave suspicious over Grace's plans including an African-born slave named Timothy (Issach de Bankole), they reluctantly welcome her as Grace also keeps Mam's family to help with things. Grace looks into the book of Mam's law realizing the complexity of the laws as well as the categorization of slaves. Meeting slaves such as Jack (Javone Prince), Old Wilma (Mona Hammond), and Elizabeth (Ginny Holder), Grace is intrigued by Timothy's presence as they get to work on giving new life to Manderlay. During this slow period of reconstruction, Grace meets a doctor named Hector (Zeljko Ivanek) who makes some suggestions that Grace refuses to comply to as she takes trees from a garden to rebuild houses. Yet, it doesn't go well as Grace hoped to be as she blames Mam's family by making them slaves as a dust storm happen as Grace learns about why the trees were placed in the garden.
Following the dust storm, Grace tries to get things started as her personal interests start to conflict with the things that Manderlay needed as Joseph decides to leave along with the gangsters. Despite the progress of cotton growing in large amounts, Grace's attempts to make profit for herself and the former slaves are dashed. Even as her feelings for Timothy would bring trouble, Grace learns some unexpected revelations about Mam's law that would force her to admit failure.
Ever since the day Africans were shipped into America as slaves, African-Americans definitely went through a struggle of oppression that's been going on for so long that it's unimaginable. Yet, the idea of slavery continuing in a tiny little plantation in Alabama 70 years after it was abolished is an astonishing idea. Then, the plot kicks in when a young woman imposes on her idealism on democracy in hoping to give them an idea of what freedom is. That plot idea is something that von Trier seems to comment on as an idea of how America is trying to bring democracy to Iraq. Yet, what von Trier brings is a different point of view of how things work. Whereas Grace had hopes to make things better her way, she begins to ignore and overlook everything else of what the former slaves wanted as well as what Mam's law was trying to do for its slaves.
Using an eight-chapter structure for his script, von Trier takes the same epic approach of Dogville but what it lacks in comparison to its predecessor is that Manderlay lacks a bit of its ambition and unpredictable commentary. Still, Manderlay remains unpredictable in its subject matter while taking several point of views on everything including its characters. For the African-American characters, they start off as stereotypes in terms of what some Americans think they are and everything only to reveal something far more complex. Even objects such as the Old Lady's Garden and the book of Mam's law which reveals to be more than simple objects. The dust storm is indeed a foreshadowing of what was to come with Hurricane Katrina in some ways while the book of Mam's law is far more complex than Grace had thought it would be. In many ways, von Trier comments on Grace's naivete and ignorance on these things that would end up making ways for her own doom. Therefore, what makes Grace end up leaving Manderlay is the result of what her point-of-view is on how things work when she doesn't realize of how things worked in Manderlay before.
The way von Trier sets things up and reveal the sense of how racism works reveals more about Mam's law and how its author sees things. There, it requires a lot of thinking of not just how America was post-slavery but America now when dealing with racism. Since von Trier chooses the same theatrical approach of Dogville, his vision is far bigger since the film starts off with an overhead shot of Grace, her father, and the gangsters driving from Dogville to Manderlay and the overhead shots of Manderlay itself reveal a much bigger land filled with a huge garden, little houses, a big plantation mansion, a well, and everything else a plantation needed. The approach is an observant of behaviors and politics in von Trier's fluid direction while his approach to narrative that is narrated by John Hurt reveals the idea of what the characters are thinking and how Grace’s point-of-view and emotions deal with the situation. Overall, it's a very strong film from Lars von Trier.
Helping von Trier with his vision is longtime cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. With him and von Trier serving as camera operators, many of the camera work is handheld to reveal an intimacy of where the characters are from the perspective shots to give hit a human feel while the only stillness is overhead shot to reveal the landscape of Manderlay and its plantation. Mantle's work is brilliant for using bright lights for the day with wonderful bluish nights for the night scenes and full-on sepia for the dust storm sequence. Art director Peter Grant and set decorator Simone Grau created an amazing set inside the sound stage that included a two-floor idea of Mam's plantation mansion that only shows a fireplace, a stair, and a bed. The rest of the production features the same kind of sparse, minimalist design of Dogville with small things like a window, door, and a broken roof. Costume designer Manon Rasmussen also created stark, poor-like clothing for most of the cast while giving a tattered suit for Wilhelm, a bunch of clean suits for the gangsters, and a fashionable dress for Grace in the look of the depression.
For the dust storm sequence, Peter Horjth created a realistic, harrowing look of the dust in its sepia color that is made in a minimalist style of visual effects. Editors Bodil Kjaerhauge and Molly Marlene Stensgard use the film's 140-minute running time to create a tight, leisurely paced film with elements of jump cuts to give the film some rhythm on many of the film's more intimate sequences. Sound designers Kristian Eidnes Andersen and Per Streit do excellent work in the sound to create the atmosphere of theatricality to the film with sounds of objects to represent the times. Music composer Joachim Holbek creates an ominous orchestral score to accompany the narration where it adds dramatic intensity in the situations where Grace and the characters are.
The film's cast includes several actors of African descent where most of them are British with the exception of a few American actors like Danny Glover and French actor Issach de Bankole. The small performances from the likes of Wendy Juel, Nina Sosanya, Ginny Holder, Javone Prince, Emmanuel Idowu, Joseph Mydell, Mona Hammond, Llewella Gideon, Suzette Llewellyn and Geoffrey Bateman are excellent as the slaves of the film. Other small performances from Chloe Sevigny, Rik Launspach, and Michael Abiteboul are excellent as Mam's family who have a moment when they're forced to wear black face that really is degrading in some way. Lauren Bacall is great in her brief appearance as Mam while Zeljko Ivanek, who replaced John C. Reilly, is funny as the sleazy entertainment doctor Hector. Other small performances from Jeremy Davies, Udo Kier, Jean-Marc Barr, and Teddy Kempner as the gangsters all each have memorable, individual moments.
Willem Dafoe gives a more subdued yet charismatic performance in the role of Grace's father. While he is more subtle than James Caan, Dafoe brings a sense of realism and cynicism to his character as a man who understands power yet doesn't want to get involved in anything else other than his own affairs. Dafoe is brilliant in his role as he doesn't overshadow Caan or out-act him. Danny Glover is great in a very complex role as a wise slave who isn't sure about the idea of freedom while letting Grace know about how Manderlay worked. When the film is about to end, Glover's performance is very subdued in how complex his character is in the way it counterpoints Grace's point of view as Glover is amazing in his performance.
Issach de Bankole is excellent in his performance as the prideful Timothy who refuses to give in to any kind of change until he's open to it only to reveal a darker side. The performance de Bankole gives is complex in his intentions as a character who is a lot smarter than he appears while he has some fine chemistry and tension with Bryce Dallas Howard.
Taking over for Nicole Kidman in a role and character that is strong and complex, Bryce Dallas Howard definitely managed to fulfill the character's expectations by bringing a newfound sense of naivete and youthful understanding to her character. Howard brings an energy and aggressiveness to her character as a young woman who imposes on ideas that she thinks will work only to be forced into understanding about how things worked before. Howard manages to reveal her range in many ways, including an emotional full-frontal nude scene that leads to a graphic sex scene with de Bankole that suggests something more. Howard really gives a fantastic performance while proving that she's more than just Ron Howard's daughter.
When Manderlay premiered at Cannes in 2005, reviews like Dogville were mixed and when it was officially released in the U.S. in early 2006, it divided everyone. Still, the film did manage to raise issues in which von Trier wanted to talk about. More importantly, the film will make anyone who has seen Dogville to go back and revisit the film on how it came to Manderlay. What both films share aside from its Brechtian staging and questions on American morality and politics is irony, notably the ending.
The title of von Trier's trilogy, USA-Land of Opportunities is a very ironic title considering that both films have grim endings that are very ironic to the situations. Whereas Dogville was about an outsider coming into town to be protected only to be humiliated by the rules and everything that led to the town's doom. Manderlay is really about how one plantation's old ways is being changed only to have things go really wrong in the end. It's in that film's ending where race is again that's the main issue in what Wilhelm says was relevant to what was happening in mid-2000s America.
Manderlay is a compelling yet haunting film from Lars von Trier that features superb performances from Bryce Dallas Howard, Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, and Issach de Bankole. While it doesn't have the big ambitions of its predecessor Dogville, it still a wonderful yet daring film from von Trier that has him commenting on the state of American idealism circa-2005. It's not an easy film to watch that features themes that not everyone will want to discuss. Yet, it's the kind of film that will provoke and challenge ideas as Manderlay, despite its flaws, is an intriguing film from Lars von Trier.
Lars von Trier Films: The Element of Crime - Epidemic - Medea - Europa - The Kingdom I - Breaking the Waves - The Kingdom II - Dogme #2-Idioterne - Dancer in the Dark - Dogville - The Five Obstructions - The Boss of It All - Antichrist - Dimension (2010 short) - Melancholia - Nymphomaniac - The House That Jack Built - The Kingdom: Exodus - (Etudes)
Related: The Auteurs #7: Lars von Trier
Related: The Auteurs #7: Lars von Trier
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