“Yet another fable from the U.S.A.? Historical or not? Film or only theater? Or just Anti-American?… so many questions and so few answers.” – Lars von Trier
This quote, pulled from the official “Manderlay” website, perfectly expresses just a few of the questions that will no doubt rise to the minds of many upon watching this film. Is it any of these things? It certainly isn’t “anti-American”, though few will surely see it that way. Some may even call it “racist” but does it deserve such a harsh adjective? Certainly not; but then again, it wouldn’t surprise me if some called it so.
“Manderlay” is the second film in von Trier’s “USA – Land of Opportunities” trilogy, which began with Dogville. Like its predecessor, the sets are almost non-existent; buildings, rooms and shrubbery are still outlined with chalk, and the stage is still black. Therefore your focus is centered with the characters and their actions, nothing else. In this film, this style actually works better than it did with “Dogville” because here, there are a lot more interesting things going on.
Prior to now, von Trier has been a master at creating amazingly interesting female characters. Breaking the Waves is a beautifully tragic story involving a woman going through absolute Hell to prove how strong her love is and Dancer in the Dark is more or less the same. Von Trier’s simplistic Dogma style added an intimate depth to those features that fully submerged you into their world with no chance to escape. “Manderlay” is definitely an interesting film, as well as a giant improvement over “Dogville,” but it’s nowhere near as emotionally captivating or engaging as his other films.
Shortly after leaving Dogville, Grace (now played by Bryce Howard) finds herself at the gates of Manderlay, a fully functioning plantation. This plantation has it all – including a group of slaves working the fields. Grace immediately finds herself in shock, since it is 1930 and slavery ended decades prior. Going against the wishes of her gangster father (Willem Dafoe), she decides to stay in Manderlay to inform the people that they are no longer slaves but free human beings. The group doesn’t seem too shocked by this sudden revelation. As if they knew which direction history would take, they opt to stay behind and keep working the plantation instead. So Grace, as kind-hearted and naive as her personality allows her to be, decides to stay behind in order to educate them about how democracy works in a free society.
Nicole Kidman dropped out of this film due to scheduling conflicts, which actually works out perfectly because the character works better with a different actress. Watching both films, you come to realize that Grace isn’t just a character; she’s an ideal. She tries to encompass everything good about the human condition dealing with compassion and understanding, yet, she is very forceful about it. Her experience in “Dogville” taught her that mankind is a manipulative, selfish group and that harsh lesson is perfectly exemplified in the way Howard tackles the role. She is a stronger Grace with a greater understanding of things; yet, she is still just as sheltered and ignorant.
Comparing a movie to its predecessor is typically frowned upon, since every movie should be looked upon as its own separate entity. If you hated “Dogville” because of the overage of narration or the length of time it took to finally get to a point, you’ll be pleased to know that von Trier has lessened both those elements. With that said, it still has some of the same flaws. The narration is lessened; but at times it does a great job of spelling out every little emotion a character is going through, leaving the imagination of the audience to retire for the evening.
“Manderlay” tackles a lot more subject matter in a lot less time, ideals that films rarely have the gall to even attempt. It doesn’t matter if these ideals are right or wrong; von Trier is a master of challenging an audience. He doesn’t just make films for the sake of entertainment, he also reminds us how to use that piece of meat found within our skull. If a film challenges us and inspires some post-screening dialogue, then it has succeeded.