Running Time: 139 minutes.
Rated: Rated MA 15+.
Lars von Trier continues with his biting critique of the United States and his commentary on the human condition, in Manderlay, the second part of the Danish director's trilogy, which sees Grace and her gangster father travelling from Dogville, a small town in the American Rockies, to Manderlay, a cotton plantation in the Deep South.
Set during the Depression in 1933, Dogville broke new ground by treating cinema like a stage play in the manner of Bertolt Brecht (Mother Courage and Her Children 1939, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui 1941), and Thornton Wilder (Our Town, 1938).
Brecht was a German dramatist who used theatre to challenge the status quo and effect political change. Wilder, an American, was also an innovative playwright, who like Brecht used rudimentary props to emphasize the universality of human experience. Manderlay continues in this tradition. The storyline is less complex than Dogville and more honed to essentials. But it is no less meaningful and just as provocative.
After leaving their home in the north, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) motors with her father (Willem Dafoe) and his convoy of gangsters through Alabama, where they pull up outside the locked iron gates of a cotton plantation, Mandalay, which still uses slaves although slavery was abolished 70 years before.
Grace finds herself intervening when a young black slave Timothy (Isaach De Bankolé) is about to be whipped by a white overseer, and in the hubbub that follows and the subsequent death of Mam (Lauren Bacall), the elderly woman who owned and ran the plantation, Grace decides to stay at Manderlay, and help the newly freed slaves bring in their first harvest, as well as shepherd them in their first halting steps towards democracy.
Grace believes she has an obligation to make it up to the slaves for the injustices they have endured at the hands of her kind. Wilhelm (Danny Glover), Mam's trusty old house-slave, expresses doubts about the enterprise, seeing no reason for change.
Grace's father is also opposed to the idea which he sees as a nonsense. But he nonetheless leaves Grace a handful of his men, plus a lawyer to transfer ownership of the plantation to the former slaves, and tells her that he will return to collect her as soon as the harvest is in.
Grace discovers that the plantation has been run according to a handwritten book called Mam's Law, which catalogues the slaves into seven distinct classes: 'the pleasing (chameleon) nigger'; 'the proudy nigger'; 'the clowning nigger', 'the beating nigger', etc.
She is appalled at the way the world, as represented by Manderlay, operates. But faced with the ex-slaves fear of freedom, a devastating dust storm, the pilfering of scarce resources, predatory whites who circle the liberated plantation like sharks, and her own mounting sexual attraction to Timothy who is a handsome 'proudy nigger', Grace discovers that redeeming Manderlay is no easy matter.
Manderlay has a mellifluous voice-over narration by John Hurt (The Elephant Man), and is divided into eight 'chapters', a device that coupled with the minimalist set (an aerial map of America traversed by tiny cars, imaginary doors that are opened then closed, rooms that are defined as such by beds or a table perhaps), forces the viewer to focus on what is being said.
Von Trier is a gifted and visionary filmmaker whose mark on cinema has been profound (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark). The wonder of Manderley is that such a honed down, lean film can be so richly entertaining. The acting is impeccable, in particular Dallas Howard (who replaces Nicole Kidman as Grace), Danny Glover, the inimitable Dafoe, and the charismatic De Bankolé (Coffee and Cigarettes, Ghost Dog). But the film's greatest impact is the bleak insight that von Trier seeks to convey.
Manderlay is a powerful indictment of slavery, and the failure of American-style democracy. But it would be a mistake to think that the director is castigating the United States alone. Manderlay is a parable, a morality play about the human condition. Grace represents the best in us, that seeks to makeover the world and transform it into a better place. She fails. Her father is a gangster, a demiurge who rules a sub-lunar planet where men are in chains of their own making. No matter how we strive to redeem ourselves, something hardwired in our nature prevents us.
That such a pessimistic view can be so exhilarating to watch, is testimony to the film's true saving grace, which is von Trier's capacity to make art from what torments him.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.