Manderlay Review

The second part of Lars von Trier’s “USA – Land of Opportunities” Trilogy presents both the director and the viewer with a number of problems. The principal difficulty of Manderlay is that the novelty factor and the sense of experimentation and wonder that Dogville presented to the viewer and the director is no longer there. Trier uses the same Brechtian stage format – all the cast permanently on a large stage that is marked out with minimal props to represent the whole estate of Manderlay - the film this time only going even further to imitate stage lighting rather than look like a conventional more naturalistic film set.

Furthermore, the ending of Dogville clearly exposed the structure, framework and allegorical nature of the project – so Manderlay is unlikely to have any new surprises to hit the viewer with. The deus ex machina device can no longer be used to such a devastating effect as it was at the end of the first film in the trilogy. Not only that, but Manderlay additionally follows almost exactly the same narrative template already familiar from Dogville. Grace arrives in a small town, where the locals are initially wary of her, come to accept her contributions and the part she can play in transforming the dynamic of the town and end up turning against her. It can also be seen as an issue that Nicole Kidman and James Caan who played Grace and her father in the first part of the trilogy, have been replaced by two different actors – Bryce Dallas Howard and Willem Dafoe. The presence of John Hurt’s omniscient and sardonic narrator is however familiar from the first film.

With the framework of Manderlay now exposed and familiar, it is consequently unlikely to attract as much attention as Dogville, so the story and message of Manderlay itself, rather than the manner in which it is presented, is likely to come under more intense scrutiny. Lars von Trier upset and angered a great many people with Dogville (mainly Americans it has to be said) in its harsh assessment on the smalltown community and the pioneering spirit that America is founded upon, by showing it to be basically small minded, insular, ignorant and intolerant - an attitude that would lead to the abuse and exploitation of the marginalised non-white immigrant sections of its community. In Manderlay the issue is similarly controversial in its taking a similarly penetrating and unforgiving look at another subject that many Americans would probably prefer remained swept under the carpet – the black issue. That Lars von Trier undertakes this subject employing rather more European actors than African American actors could also be seen as problematic.

Despite the fact that I have enumerated the substantial difficulties that the viewer, and undoubtedly the director himself, is faced with when coming to Manderlay, I think Lars von Trier largely overcomes these. The script and how it deals with the subject are not what you would call subtle, but there is actually a lot more to the story than at first appears. In 1930’s America, Grace, fleeing Dogville with her father and his band of gangsters, passes through Alabama, where she finds an estate owned by Mam (Lauren Bacall) still being run like an old-style plantation, the black people who work in the fields planting and picking the cotton treated like slaves, unpaid, beaten and whipped by the white landowners when they behave or speak out of order. Grace, with a group of her father’s henchmen, is determined to put the matter to rights, giving the blacks their share of the estate and giving them a democratic voice to have their say in how the plantation is run. Grace is disappointed however to find that rather than creating a more just and equal society where the benefits are shared by all, that there are underlying problems that prevent this ideal from being achieved.

So far, and particularly after the treatment of Dogville this all seems pretty obvious. But Trier’s script for Manderlay, being set 70 years after the abolishment of slavery, is not just an attack on a shameful period of America’s past. It goes beyond this and examines the repercussions of what that past has created in the present day. Manderlay is not just about America’s treatment of slaves, it raises issues about democracy, the justice system and the death penalty in society today. And let’s not forget Dogville, which is not just a standalone film nor, as it may appear, merely a template for how the subsequent films are going to play out different aspects of American society. Dogville, in its examination of the moral character, intolerance and small minded bigotry of the founding fathers of America towards marginalised sections of its community, forms the basis of a society that we can see the repercussions of in Manderlay. Those attitudes have become enshrined in a democratic and legal system that tolerated slavery and whose legacy continues to oppress and marginalise black people in a flawed system that gives them the illusion of liberty and equality, when in reality it only institutionalises self-righteous, small-minded attitudes and bigotry.

And it is here in the character of Grace, her family and her associates that Manderlay builds on and goes beyond Dogville. At the end of the first film, Grace and her family’s treatment of the people of Dogville looked like some kind of God-like judgement and righteous retribution, but in the light of Manderlay their idealism takes on the more sinister aspect of a well-meaning but inherently corrupt policing and legislative body, with the spectre of US foreign interventionism (and Iraq) hanging over proceedings as well. It is in this aspect and in the film’s sexual dimension (some of the scripts initial themes of dominance, submission and masochism are influenced by de Sade and The Story of O) that more intriguing vagaries are blended into a script that does not allow itself to be pinned down as easily as its deceivingly simplistic narrative might lead one to believe. They are aspects I expect will be further developed in a undoubtedly similarly controversial manner in the third part of the trilogy, Wasington, as Grace makes her way towards the America’s political and legislative heartland.

The Danish edition of Manderlay is released by Nordisk and is produced by Electric Parc, the studio that has already produced a superb edition of Dogville, as well as superlative editions of Danish films like Dear Wendy, the Dogme Kollection #1-4 and the MIPCOM DVD award-winning Lars von Trier's Europe Trilogy. Manderlay matches the previous Nordisk release of Dogville - a quality two disc set full of relevant and worthwhile extra features. The DVD is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2. The Danish set of the Manderlay can be purchased from DVDoo or Laserdisken.

While the setting and staging of Manderlay is close to that of Dogville, there are differences in how it is lit and filmed. Trier complained in the commentary of the previous film that, despite its stripping down of staging and props and use of handled cameras and jump cut editing, it still looked too well-composed and glossy for his tastes. Here Trier and director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle have revised how they stage and light the film, grading it in post-production to achieve a less polished look. The film consequently looks much darker and hazier than its predecessor and is rather soft in its transfer to DVD and is less friendly for television viewing. How it appears on individual set-ups is consequently likely to vary greatly. I noticed differences myself between how the transfer performed on a television and on a PC monitor. Technically, there are no flaws, marks or scratches on the transfer and no macro-blocking artefacts, through there is a slight shimmer and breaking up of horizontal edges on rare occasions.

The film comes with a choice of DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, both of which are excellent, if not exactly making the kind of impact you might expect. Rather, like Dogville, the audio track is similarly clear and discreet, remaining for the most part simply centre based - like the stripped-down staging itself, avoiding distraction from the dialogue and performance that the film is wholly reliant upon. It opens out at key moments, but with subtlety and appropriateness for the scene, with a fineness and warmth of tone.

As the film is in English language, there are no English subtitles for the film, just optional subtitles for Danish and Swedish viewers. Many of the extra features are also English language and do not have subtitles, though those in Danish are fully subtitled. It would be nice if full English subtitles had been included for the hard of hearing, but this is a minor complaint, particularly when the studio usually goes to so much trouble to include English menus and subtitles for all their Danish language features and commentaries on these Danish releases.

Disc One
Commentary by Lars von Trier and Anthony Dod Mantle
The commentary by the director and DoP makes the effort to be informative about the shooting of the film, giving technical details on the theatrical lighting, colour grading and working with the different skin tones in this film. Anthony Dod Mantle probes Trier a bit to explain what is revealed about Grace’s character and sexuality in Manderlay, but generally the commentary is a little more circumspect in discussion of the film’s subject matter. Trier sees it as a tighter script than Dogville, with more historical accuracy and research having gone into the story, but he is also frank about the weaknesses in the production and how the ideas are conveyed. Generally, Trier feels that it was too easy a film to make and that the third film in the trilogy (which is currently on hold) needs to be looser and more challenging. There is also some sense of humour in the commentary, which is reflected in aspects of the film, particularly in discussions of the use of the donkey - although the early controversy over its treatment causing John C. Reilly’s departure from the film is rather hastily skipped over.

A good selection of interviews briefly and concisely covers the experience of the actors working on the production. Bryce Dallas Howard (5:40) talks about working with the director, her ease with the script and about being an American in this film (most of the other actors are European). Isaach de Bankolé (4:45) gives his thoughts on the script and its themes. Just as Bryce Dallas Howard supports Trier’s outsider’s view of America, Isaach de Bankolé appreciates the perceptiveness of the scripts depiction of the black community. Danny Glover (4:53) describes his interest in being part of a film that he sees as imaginative and challenging. Willem Dafoe (5:52) talks about how he became involved in the film, his interest in the script and the acting methods required for a movie like this.

Trailer (1:51)
The trailer is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic. Hurt’s narration is the perfect introduction to the film and its subject.

Disc Two
With the full cooperation of Lars von Trier and the cast describing their approach to the film, The Road to Manderlay (44:29) is a fine making of, which covers the progress of the film from the cast getting a grounding in the issues the film raises, through to the give and take of acting and directing and the filming methods used (those handheld cameras seem to be getting bigger rather than smaller). Electric Parc make great Cannes documentaries, capturing the buzz of the festival in the featurettes included on the Danish Dogme Kollection #1-4 set and their Dogville DVD. Once again they capture the heightened atmosphere of the Film Festival superbly in The Cannes Experience – Manderlay 2005 (29:29) - with endless rounds of interviews, photo calls, press conferences, screenings and the aftermath. Trier is always good value at Cannes, directly attacking George Bush and making outrageous comments to the press about America.

A few spin-offs from the main ‘Making of’, Peter Hjorth presents how the special effects were achieved in Visual Effects (12:58), there is a look at the set designs in Less Is More (6:30), where few props are used, but Lars examines and approves each one. Jeremy Davis – one of the many star actors in the film who have practically nothing to so (Bacall, Sevigny, Kier) - finds his true vocation in Jeremy – The Coffee Boy.

Some of the interviews seen in the earlier Cannes documentary are presented here at greater length. The Scandinavian Press Conference with Lars von Trier (27:12) is a very in-depth interrogation of the director to which he is very forthcoming and direct in his responses, revealing a lot not only about his ideas and opinions, but also about his character and sense of humour. The interview covers not only Manderlay but early films and unfinished projects. This is a vital interview - Trier relaxed and speaking in Danish - perhaps the most important extra feature in the whole set. In the Scandinavian Press Conference with Bryce Dallas Howard (10:00) the actress talks about Grace and how her version of the character differs from Nicole Kidman’s. She gives some background information on her upbringing (as the daughter of director Ron Howard) and how she came into acting. Issues of race and the handling of black characters are discussed in the Scandinavian Press Conference with Isaach De Bankolé, Danny Glover and Willem Dafoe (10:41) as they relate to Manderlay and to films in general.

A further series of interviews commences with another excellent probing interrogation of the director on the Danish DR2 TV programme Deadline 2. Section (28:13) which focuses largely on the social, political and philosophical questions raised by Manderlay. Again Trier is quite forthcoming until the subject of Danish cinema comes up - he has clearly been advised to steer clear of making any more derogatory comments about Anders Thomas Jensen, Brothers, or Danish cinema in general. Pity. Various issues regarding the film’s ideas, content and treatment are conducted (to exhaustion) over additional interviews with Lars von Trier (22:52), Danny Glover (5:34), Willem Dafoe (3:26), Lauren Bacall (5:16), Joseph Mydell (4:48), cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (4:40) and producer Vibeke Windelov (4:06).

I wouldn’t be surprised if many critics and viewers found the political allegory of Manderlay trite, obvious, simplistic, condescending and, particularly after having already done so in Dogville (down to replicating the pointed use of Bowie’s Young Americans for the end titles) – regard it as another unsubtle and provocative bashing of America by a European who has never even visited the nation. But Trier has introduced elements here that again, as in Dogville, can be taken both on a smaller scale human level, looking at the flaws and complexities that lie within people, and seeing how those characteristics can be multiplied and amplified when given a democratic voice. And although Manderlay is quite specific in showing how those principles of “freedom and democracy” have become perverted in America, the film can and should be taken in a much wider context. That however is just my interpretation of what I have seen in the films so far – there are many other elements, suggestions and possibilities thrown up by both films, some of which may be meaningful and work and some may not. I may also perhaps be a little too forgiving of the weaknesses that are apparent in Manderlay and a little too trusting of the direction that I can only speculate that Lars von Trier’s “USA – Land of Opportunities” trilogy is going in, but I am optimistic that the third part will deliver on its promise and I look forward immensely to seeing its conclusion in Wasington.

8 out of 10
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