Lars von Trier is back again in his American trilogy, this time with Manderlay. For those who aren’t familiar with the Danish director of “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark”, he is quite the provacateur and is fascinating and exasperating, often at the same time.
The first film in his trilogy was “Dogville” with Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall and Willem Dafoe among others and that film (like this one) is set during the Depression. It wowed the audiences in Cannes but American audiences and critics stayed away. I was a fan of the first film, it was demanding yet rewarding, stunning visually yet ultra-minimal as the entire film was set on a sound stage with no effort to conceal itself. There were chalk markings on the floor to delineate rooms and places. It was more like an avant garde theater piece and it took time for the view to adjust but ultimately was rewarding to this viewer.
Manderlay continues that same film style, shot entirely on a soundstage but is incredibly inventive at the same time. Bryce Dallas Howard replaces Nicole Kidman and acquits herself in the role of Grace and Bacall, Defoe and Jeremy Davies are back as well. This film concentrates on the stain of slavery in America in the same way that class and power did in “Dogville” and it is a blistering indictment of race relations then and now in this country. The critics have not been kind on the whole to the film for a variety of reasons. They call the film didactic, pedantic and self-conscious which isn’t untrue, it’s just that the film is so chock full of layers and unique point of view that I was riveted. Every time I thought I knew where the film was heading it rounded a curve and surprised me. This film is not for the faint of heart and it requires much concentration but I felt incredibly rewarded by the end of the film when it comes to its powerful conclusion which is the same way I felt at the end of “Dogville”.
Manderlay is the most critical film of America that I’ve ever seen and the montage over the end credits is a searing indictment of the way whites have treated blacks over our entire history. What concerns me most about the criticism of the film is that von Trier hasn’t told untruths, it appears to me Americans don’t like being criticized by a foreigner. If Sidney Poitier had directed this film it would be nominated for Best Film at the Oscars. Since it has not it is being slammed mainly on the fact that von Trier has never visited the USA. Did anyone have a problem with Reagan demonizing Russia without traversing that country or any of our Presidents criticizing other countries? It seems the finger only points in one direction and that invalidates it for me immediately.
If you get the chance to see this in your city and are in an adventurous mood, please consider it. I doubt this film will make it to the smaller towns as art films don’t get distributed much here these days unfortunately so you will have to wait for DVD and Netflix.