Monday, 5 March 2007

Manderlay (Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands/France/Germany/UK, 2005, Lars von Trier)

The second part in von Trier’s trilogy of films about America, loosely titled ‘USA – Land of Opportunities’, ‘Manderlay’ is arguably less an exposé about racism and its history in the United States, but more a satiric attack upon white liberal guilt. Whatever von Trier’s intentions, and it’s unlikely that you’d get definitive answers from him regardless, this trilogy has already caused much controversy, which von Trier would probably enjoy no end. Both instalments to date have received largely poor reviews in the United States; critics focus on von Trier’s known dislike of America and his refusal to visit there, but I see these attacks as fairly churlish. By shooting films on mostly bare sets with houses and props drawn on, it’s clear that von Trier is hardly trying to aim for realistic cinema, thus there’s little possibility of the films being that politically dangerous. Many home-grown film makers use American morals and values as satiric targets, so maybe it is because von Trier is a foreigner, an outsider looking in, and seeing something rotten in the state of America. There’s always the possibility that von Trier considers American audiences and critics as more sensitive than others and just enjoys pissing people off. Who knows?

‘Manderlay’ follows on pretty much directly from ‘Dogville’. Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) and her father (now played by Willem Dafoe) have left the town they unleashed a terrible vengeance upon, and are stopped by a black woman as they pass the town of Manderlay. Upon being told that a black man is being whipped, Grace then discovers that Manderlay still enforces slavery, under the command of Mam (Lauren Bacall) despite it being some seventy years since the abolition of slavery. Supported by her father’s henchmen, Grace then calls for a cease to slavery and the introduction of democracy and equality in the town, the very foundations on which the United States is built. Overseeing this formation of a new, free community, we are reminded of current events in Iraq and Afghanistan, where a ‘well meaning’ American government liberated its peoples with the use of force, despite there being no history of democratic or participatory democracy in these regions. Wilhelm, an elder slave does not believe that the slaves are ready to be free, and remains uncertain about Grace’s plans, which might well comprise of good intentions, but they naturally cause more problems than they sought to redress.

The former slaves begin to play cards rather then work, don’t tend to their homes, and the former white landowners perform the manual labour. There is also one unsavoury scene in which Grace orders the whites to serve the blacks dinner whilst in blackface, presumably so that they can sense what it feels like to be demeaned, though I think this was somewhat ill-advised on von Trier’s part. Despite being taught to make decisions by using majority ballots, the community uses this basic human right in order to agree upon the execution of one of the group – old Wilma, who stole the food left for Claire, an ill child who later died. Clearly Grace did not intend for these rights to be exploited in such a way, and remonstrates with the community, explaining that democracy should not be used to exact vengeance. Grace shoots Wilma to spare her more suffering.

All this time Grace has been in possession of ‘Mam’s Book’, a detailed manual of the psychology of slaves, which causes one of the film’s later shocks when it emerges that Wilhelm was it’s co-author with Mam. In despair at how poorly the community has taken to democratic self-government, she hands them this manual before she decides to leave the town. Each slave in the village is assigned a number which notes particular psychological aspects to their character. Grace’s lust for Timothy, one of the slaves, blinds her to the fact that he is ‘diabolically clever’, a master manipulator, who can make the beholder see him in whichever way they wish to. Timothy is in many ways the architect of the downfall of the community, as he instigates some of their worse habits; gambling and drinking, for instance. Wilhelm explains his complicity in the continuation of slavery in Manderlay in the same way in which he had reservations about Grace’s plans earlier – that he did not think slaves were ready for freedom. He considered slavery the lesser of two evils, and that it was for the good of everyone; for both the oppressed and the oppressors. Slaves had food, shelter, and they were able to complain about their oppression (and masters) for the fact they had no hope. Despite Grace’s myopic and naïve guidance, the community of Manderlay could not make much substantial from their liberation. In a remarkable twist of fate and irony, the blacks agree to vote to reimpose slavery and Mam’s law, and also vote for Grace to replace Mam as their master. Appalled at this suggestion and at how her plans for the community had failed so spectacularly, she flees Manderlay, though she misses her father who arrived at the designated time, but she was a few minutes later. As the film closes, we are completely uncertain about how she will fare in the third instalment, Wasington, which appears to be on the backburner currently.

Perhaps more provocative than ‘Dogville’ (indeed most of the slaves in the film are played by British actors, as African-American actors steered away from the film due to its content – Danny Glover excepted), it’s fair to say however than ‘Manderlay’ doesn’t quite have the same impact. Undoubtedly this is because it reuses many of the gimmicks and technical aspects that ‘Dogville’ used, and they seem less of a novelty second time around. Still, the themes explored are perhaps even more relevant than those of ‘Dogville’. Von Trier’s targets are white liberal guilt and the naivety of those wishing to impose democracy and freedom upon societies with no history of them, so whilst they are definitely American targets, its arguable there is no distinct bias along left/right lines – both sides of the spectrum are equally mocked. Where ‘Wasington’ takes the trilogy from here, who can tell, but currently von Trier is 2/3 of the way through completing an interesting, if sometimes flawed series of films that covers contemporary America in an unflattering light.

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