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Movie Review: Manderlay

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How I love that impish Dane! I enjoy sorting through the nonsense he spews in interviews, I enjoy the controversy he generates (his words, his films, his manifestos spawn film-oriented arguments with a consistency that, I imagine, is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard in his prime), and I have genuinely enjoyed nearly every minute of every Lars von Trier movie that I have ever seen.

My esteem for von Trier crystallized during a screening of the 2003 film The Five Obstructions, in which Jørgen Leth remakes his own 1967 short The Perfect Human five different times under five different sets of arbitrary restrictions devised by von Trier. One set of obstructions is that there are no obstructions. Another is that Leth has to surrender directorial duties to von Trier.

Watching The Five Obstructions, an ebullient celebration of the triumph of the Artist over that root obstruction Life, it dawned on me that the infamous dictums of Dogme 95 are all just as arbitrary as von Trier’s obstructions in this film. They parody the tacit restrictions placed on every film by investors and studios, they make light of the limitations imposed by budgetary constraints and censorships. The filmmaker who undertakes a film under these conditions symbolically shoulders the burden of filmmakers everywhere, in every time!

Or something like that. The point is, it’s meant in the spirit of mischief. He is the trickster deity of the contemporary film world, scattering totalitarian anarchy like so many rose petals. With Manderlay the puckish Mr. von Trier pokes at America’s most sensitive areas as if with a stick, at the still raw wound of slavery and the open sore of our ventures in Iraq.

To this end he employs elements of Brecht’s epic theater, as he did in his last film, Dogville. Today in America, as in Weimar Germany, public discourse is dominated by emotion. The right finds it politically expedient to cultivate a culture of fear, to which the left responds with Cindy Sheehan tugging at our heart strings. Both sides stonewall the Dubai Ports deal. The use of a Brechtian aesthetic would seem a call to step back. The abandonment of reason brought the Germans National Socialism; what next for America?

Of course, von Trier is visibly less interested in this project than he was the last time out, and where Dogville adhered more or less faithfully to the tenets of epic theater Manderlay pushes against its limitations. The former film’s chapters built on one another, generating an interest in the narrative. Manderlay’s episodes function more as a series of vignettes, the suspense derived from the specific plot developments within the segment. Wilma’s (Mona Hammond) trial and the subsequent scene between Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Wilma are genuinely affecting, courtesy of Howard’s humanist interpretation of Grace (as opposed to Nicole Kidman’s considerable reserve).

This is, of course, a failure in Brechtian terms, but it makes the film considerably more engaging than its predecessor. Von Trier’s boredom also expresses itself in some striking visual flourishes, such as the flaming donkey that runs across the stage at one point (responsible for John C. Reilly walking off the set – he was replaced by a Zeljko Ivanek), a (presumably digital) quick track back from the sound stage to represent Grace’s isolation after she is raped, and swallows flying over Manderlay in a creative use of lighting.

The film unfolds almost like a slasher pic for intellectuals. The eight chapter demarcations mark time efficiently like a cast of libidinous teenagers being eliminated one by one, an old book containing the sinister “Mam’s Law” lurks in a southern mansion, the roman numerals inscribed on the ground suggest the occult. Then, in the last chapter, in which the true nature of Mam’s Law is revealed, plays like the climax of a horror film in which the killer is unmasked.

Finally, where there should be one last orgy of bloodshed leaving only the heroine standing Grace turns the tables on Manderlay by use of the whip. The visceral thrills of a horror film are here replaced by von Trier’s attempts at offense: racial stereotypes, rape, a gratuitous shot of the Twin Towers.

I personally think that Manderlay should be taken no more seriously than said slasher pics. Dogville, for better or for worse (it was rather long) created a fully realized world. Manderlay too often broaches an issue but then neglects to explore it adequately. The connections to the Iraq War and to American slavery (it’s based on an episode in The Story of O that took place in Barbados) are too tenuous to say anything revelatory about either. If the use of black stereotypes is intended to hold up a mirror to American films, too little is productively done with these stereotypes for this goal to be realized. But the film is diverting, and the acting is fantastic.

Danny Glover plays Wilhelm with a dignity and intelligence that is fascinating given his character’s actions and Zeljko Ivanek plays Dr. Hector with a charisma that I just can’t imagine John C. Reilly matching. All of the actors resist the archetypal nature of their parts and they almost universally succeed in adding a spark of humanity to each character. Again, while this reinforces the dramatic illusion (a mark of failure by Brecht’s standards) it also makes the film considerably more entertaining.

So far as I’m concerned Manderlay is fun, but not brilliant. But this film doesn’t end with the credits. Roger Ebert observes that “the arguments afterward will be the real show. Many moviegoers are likely to like the film less than the discussions it drags them into.” Lars von Trier’s art encompasses the controversy that he and his films engender. For his ability to generate passionate discourse about film, art, life, politics I will always prize that “daffy Dane” (As he was called by Lawrence Toppman). Like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or Week End, Manderlay is interesting in large part because of who made it. But this is a perfectly legitimate reason to like it. And like it I do.

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