Manderlay (2005): Von Trier’s Tale of Slavery, Starring Bryce Dalas Howard

Nicole Kidman is very much missed in “Manderlay,” Lars von Trier’s second installment of his trilogy, “USA: Land of Opportunity.” The film has so many flaws that I doubt whether Kidman could have saved it. Nonetheles, at the very least, Kidman would have made the experience more tolerable than it is with Bryce Dalas Howard (director Ron Howard’s daughter), who now plays the role of Grace.

The script was written for Kidman, and when she dropped out, her character had to change to fit the new actress, Howard. Von Trier holds that Howard’s youth makes her naivete and stubbornness more probable. (It’s worth noting that all of Von Trier’s heroines possess a certain masochistic naivete). Though the actresses are not the same, it’s the same Grace, which is the reason why Howard wears the same dress as Kidman.

Thematically and stylistically, “Manderlay” continues von Trier’s obsessive exploration of American history, a survey that began with “Dogville.” This time around he is reinventing race relations in the South, circa 1933.

The history lessons in the second chapter concern the long-lasting effects of the evils of slaverty on the present and future. Von Trier has described his film as an ambiguous moral comedy. But to me, this film, just like the first one, is about America as a cynical, arrogant, and stupid country.

“Manderlay” has a shorter running time than “Dogville,” but its body count is higher, and there’s more talk about sex than in the first segement. Nonetheless, as with “Dogville,” von Trier employs Brechtian distancing and theatrical devices, shooting on a large soundstage with a painted floor, using a few props, and a curtain for backdrop. But, alas, the novelty has worn out, and “Manderlay” is a long, dull yawn.

The plot is based on two sources. The first is a preface written by a French writer for “The Story of O,” about some liberated slaves who wanted their master back, because at least then they had something to eat; when he refused, they killed him. The film is also inspired by Jacob Holdt’s photographs and lectures about the U.S.

The story is rather rudimentary, an excuse for thye director’s sermons. On the way through Alabama, while her father (Willem Dafoe replacing James Caan) looks for fresh hunting grounds, Grace becomes involved in a slave dispute on a cotton plantation called Manderlay. Never mind that the movie is set during the Depression, in 1933, and not 1863. Though an outsider, Grace gets fully engaged. It’s not made clear if she’s doing it for Daddy, or out of ideological conviction, aiming to right all the wrongs with the American system.

Grace discovers that slavery is still practiced. She demands that her father’s henchmen free the slaves in the estate run an elderly white woman (Lauren Bacall, who played a different role in “Dogville”). It doesn’t help that the villain of the piece, Bacall, dies early on. It means that, unlike “Dancer in the Dark” and “Dogville,” a central character is gone and there is no heavy to root against.

Before departing, Grace’ss father leaves four of his gangsters and a lawyer, warning his daughter to stay away from the whole thing. But as stubborn as her Daddy, Grace stays, determined to introduce the slaves to the basic notions of Democracy and Equality.

Grace is particularly horrified by a handwritten book, “Mam’s Law,” which codified the slaves by personality types in a primitive, racist manner. With a nod to Hitchcock, von Trier contains a terrible secret in that book.

Soon, Grace not only preaches self-sufficiency, individualism, and hard work, but also begins to indulge in sexual fantasies about one of the black workers, Timothy (Isaach De Bankole), who is actually of African nobility. Is von Trier paying tribute here to Luis Bunuel’s subversive “Belle de Jour”

The old slave Wilhelm (Danny Glover, who gives the film’s only decent performance) warns Grace against moving too quickly with her plans but she ignores him. Nature interferes too, with dust storms and famine that threaten the livelihood of the commune, forcing some members to eat dirt. Later on, a semblance of moral dilemma is presented, when the collective votes to execute an old woman for stealing the food of a sickly infant.

Von Trier tries to make the film more timely by drawing parallels between Grace’s enforced lessons in democracy and the Bush administration Iraq War. Grace stands in for George W. Bush. For Bush, if democracy doesn’t come quickly enough, it must be implemented by force. In “Manderlay,” the slaves don’t particularly wish to be freed, and they are fearful of their new power to make decisions. Some stick to tradition, wanting things to continue the way they used to be.

You may be provoked (I was irritated) by the fact that some of the characters from Dogville are now played by different actors, and some of the same actors return to play different characters.

Despite intended continuity, there are major differences between the two “Graces.” Grace of “Dogville” notes everything but doesn’t intervene until the end, whereas Grace of “Manderlay” is more active. At the end of “Dogville,” Grace assumes some power and vows to use it for making the world a better place. And indeed in “Manderlay,” committed to her goal, Grace tries.

There are no heroes in “Manderlay.” Grace could have been but for von Trier she spoils everything around her by being too stupid, idealistic, and emotional. She lacks skills for pragmatism and compromise, which are crucial for playing politics.

Unlike “Dogville,” which was pretentious, “Manderlay” is both pretentious and boring. In this picture, von Triers functions more as a history professor of limited (and distorted) knowledge than as a provocateur. But not, as some critics have charged, because he had never set foot in the U.S. (Most artists had not visited the countries they wrote about, including Shakespeare).

Von Trier has built a whole career out of provocations. In all of his films about the American Way of Life, he relies on his fantasies and nightmares rather than rigorous study or inventive exploration of history and culture. If we disregarded the glaring distortions of the American legal system in “Dancer in the Dark,” it was because stylistically the musical drama was innovative and the emotional tone was engaging.

The formal Brechtian devices are deployed to a lesser effect in Mandelay.” The sameness of the set, which worked well in “Dogville” but not here, and the unimaginative color palette of the sets and costumes, make the film visually monotonous. Worse, the film is burdened by John Hurt’s voice-over narration, which makes sure that no ideological message goes unnoticed, even if it risks repetition and tedium.

Von Trier’s films have always been more popular in Europe than the U.S. and for good reasons. But it may be useful for his producers to ask who are the target audiences for his ideologically didactic explorations. Unlike “Dancer in the Dark” and “Dogville,” which divided critics and viewers, I suspect that “Manderlay” will appeal to neither conservative nor liberal viewers because the film is simply not good enough.

The goal to dissect polarized American class and race system is admirable in theory, since mainstream Hollywood is not dealing with such divisive issues. But “Manderlay” has little of interest to say, and the means chosen to do that work against its intent.

“Manderlay” is so didactic that it’s not likely to provoke debates about the story’s potentially incendiary issues. The context in which the film is released may work against it too. At present, public attention is targeted on Bush’s foreign policies (specifically the Iraq War), rather than domestic problems like such as racial inequality and poverty.

Von Trier has seldom been dull, but in Manderlay,” he shows signs of boredom. Is it too much to propose that two (three, if you count “Dancer in the Dark”) segments about the “Evil American Empire” per von Trier are enough

End Note

For the record, the visual montage over the closing credits is set to David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”