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MANDERLAY - *
Written and directed by Lars von Trier. 140 minutes. Hebrew title: Manderlay. In English, with Hebrew titles.
With Bryce Dallas Howard, Isaach De Bankole, Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, Jeremy Davies, Lauren Bacall, Chloe Sevigny, Suzette Llewellyn, Zeljko Ivanek
If you decide to see Lars van Trier's Manderlay, the second part in his USA trilogy (the first part was last year's Dogville), and would like to stay awake, you'll have to choose a strategy.
You can concentrate on the film's pretension, anti-American arrogance, incoherence, stilted writing or sheer stupidity. Due to space limitations, in this review, I'll concentrate on the latter. Let's start with the premise: Manderlay is a condemnation of slavery in the US, not a controversial stance in the year 2005, but the twist is that it's set in Alabama in the Thirties. It's the story of a Deep South plantation, cut off from the world by a locked gate, in which both the white and black inhabitants continue to live as if slavery had never been abolished. Obviously, given the stark sets and stylized photography, vaguely reminiscent of German expressionist cinema, none of this is meant to be taken literally but is clearly a metaphor for the continued existence of racism in America.
The US may have freed the slaves, in the narrow, legal sense in 1865, but African Americans are as enslaved today as they were before the Civil War, von Trier is saying. While it's well known that racism is still a problem in the US, this literal-minded treatise fails to make one fresh or even true observation on the subject. Over and over, the director uses heavy-handed symbolism to hammer home his point: The US is evil and its treatment of its black citizens is just one more example of its moral degradation.
To explore this theme, von Trier again uses the character of Grace, a naive gangster's daughter on the run, who was also the heroine of Dogville, to represent well-meaning but ultimately destructive liberals. In Dogville, she was played by Nicole Kidman, and she stumbled into the supposedly generic hamlet of Dogville, where she appealed to the citizens' kindness and asked for refuge, only to end up being exploited, raped, humiliated and abused in every way. Eventually, she was forced to wear a dog collar (which looked extremely fetching on the chic Kidman, but did not seem to console her character). At the film's end, Grace, reunited with her gangster father, turned around and massacred all of Dogville's vicious citizens. In that film, the similar message was that small-town America is a hotbed of hypocrisy and hellish cruelty, a theme that David Lynch explored with infinitely more subtlety and wit in Blue Velvet.
In Manderlay, Grace, played this time by Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of director Ron Howard), is traveling with her father (Willem Dafoe, the only actor who manages to breathe some life into this wordy script) and his criminal cronies through the South when they pass the Manderlay plantation and see a strong, proud black man Timothy (Isaach de Bankole, a fine actor wasted on this stereotypical role), being whipped by one of his white overseers. Angry, idealistic and not overly bright Grace barges in and breaks the news that slavery has ended. She confronts Mam, the owner of the plantation, on her deathbed and harangues her for continuing to subjugate blacks decades after the Civil War. It's particularly distracting if you keep in mind that Mam is played by an unrecognizable Lauren Bacall, which made me wonder whether she wouldn't be much happier playing a bitchy neighbor on Desperate Housewives.
In any case, there's not much time to dwell on Bacall's career choice, because she dies quickly and Grace sets about reorganizing the plantation and freeing the slaves. Initially perturbed by the blacks' lack of gratitude, she soon changes her tack, saying philosophically, "There's no reason to feel grateful for anything as natural as your freedom." Her father warns her not to pursue this experiment, reminding her (I'm not making this up), that as a child she once freed her pet parakeet Tweety, only to find the bird frozen to death on her windowsill the next morning.
But she is single-minded: If she did not stay to wreck their lives with her naive but well-meaning decisions, there wouldn't be a movie. Her poor judgment and lack of understanding of both the blacks and whites soon bring them all to the brink of starvation. But, given no encouragement from anyone, she soldiers on, pausing for a graphic sado-masochistic erotic interlude with Timothy, part of a subtext articulated by her father at the beginning, that "progress and democracy aren't sexy," and that women long to be dominated savagely by men of different races. After the brutal sex, the androgynous Grace, who during most of the film is dressed in an elegant but baggy pantsuit, switches to a white lace-trimmed dress. Even without the obvious symbolism, the message would be clear: Liberal, sexless whites harbor sexual fantasies about blacks, the more virile race.
All this would be offensive, to people of all races, if it weren't so laughable and trite. Von Trier seems to be on the warpath against American liberals, who claim blacks are free to do as they like but have never given them the help they need. Manderlay's blacks, devastated by the chaos of freedom (and also by some of Grace's idiotic mistakes), choose to return to slavery. In the film's last dose of infantile irony, Grace ends up whipping Timothy, the punishment she saved him from in the beginning. For all her rhetoric about equality and justice, Grace becomes as vicious an oppressor as the former plantation owners. Get it? No matter what white Americans do, they are vile and culpable.
Just in case you didn't get the message, von Trier ends the film with a montage of photographs showing poor US blacks from various eras, interspersed with shots of Ku Klux Klan meetings and President Bush, as David Bowie's "Young Americans" plays on the soundtrack. In a particularly annoying shot, a black junkie shoots up with the World Trade Center in the background and the camera focuses on the buildings. What does Manderlay have to do with Islamic terror? The obvious conclusion is that von Trier wants to remind us that the US is seen as an agent of Satan all over the world. The one virtue of this ending is the snappy Bowie song. Without it, it would probably be difficult to rouse the audience, numbed by the verbose, faux-naive dialogue and confused storyline, up and out of their seats.
Last year when I reviewed Dogville, I predicted that the next movie in this trilogy would be about Americans drinking the blood of European children. That may well be what von Trier, a Danish director who is afraid of flying and has never visited the US, has planned for the third film, but even that would be no sillier or irrelevant than Manderlay.
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