Directed Viewing: The “Manderlay” Problem

Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.

We’ve been following the career of Danish director Lars von Trier for quite some time now, digging into his various dalliances with trilogies and more experimental diversions. It’s not been all fun and games, especially in the early going, but von Trier quickly evolved into a voice that was as assured as he was divisive. Sure, what he said was often difficult to hear, but he always seemed to have a clear and expressive point with enough faith in his audiences to allow them the courtesy of interpretation. As you might expect from this intro, we’ll be coming back to that idea today.

I’d also encourage anyone who is reading this to check out Dogville, the movie that precedes this. Today’s movie is von Trier’s only real sequel, and a lot of the problems with it are predicated on taking it as an extension of the themes and ideas of that other, much better film. So read that, if you haven’t, and then let’s come back and continue on the strange, elaborate journey that one woman is taking through the dark heart of American philosophy.

Manderlay (2005)

Coming right off of the cavalcade of gangsters in long menacing cars driving out of the wreckage of Dogville, Manderlay picks up on the other side of the country near the end of the voyage. Gangster royalty Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her father (Willem Dafoe) have been diverted to the deep south when in his absence her father had his criminal empire (supposedly somewhere in the northeast) usurped. Now they have become pilgrims without a destination, traveling only to find a new place to put down roots and establish a new criminal empire. But in that time, Grace has once again grown discontent with her father’s assumptions of right-to-rule, and is antsy to get out from under his thumb once again. Apparently the protracted lesson of the last film, with its degradation and outright sexual assaults, has left no lasting impression.

The caravan stops at a plantation called Manderlay in the remote wilds of Alabama, simply taking a break to stretch a bit before carrying on. It’s here that they run into a woman who emerges from the plantation seeking asylum, claiming that she’s about to be whipped for stealing. Grace, being far too willing to throw herself at other people’s problems, enters the plantation only to find that she’s stepping back into another world. Manderlay is a plantation run by a white family who still insist on carrying on the tradition of slavery even into the 1930s, keeping a contingent of black workers who make up the maids, servants, and farmers who work the cotton fields surrounding the plantation.

Bryce Dallas Howard is no Nicole Kidman, and while I shouldn’t hold that against her (I’m no Nicole Kidman either) it does make her the weakest part of the movie.

Grace, rightly horrified, decides that this simply cannot stand and decides that this is where she’s going to stay and try to fix things. Her father, deciding that this isn’t at all what he signed up for, agrees to let her do this but will only leave her a few of his men and no promise of a return, ready to go off to start a more straightforward way of life that isn’t trying to bring these people into some sort of capitalist democracy. Grace agrees and her father leaves her to oversee the workings of Manderlay, which are soon thrown into complete disarray when the matriarch Mam (Lauren Bacall) dies and nobody’s left who knows how to run things save for the eldest slave Wilhelm (Danny Glover), who is so used to the old ways that Grace has a hard time taking him seriously.

Grace then quickly goes about abolishing all the rules and guidelines Mam kept written down in a book that is treated somewhere between law and gospel by the people of Manderlay, and sets about making everyone equal in a voting process. Instantly everyone votes to have the white family do all the manual labor as recompense while everyone else enjoys living off of them, which sounds like good retribution until they realize that with an inverted pyramid of labor everyone is going to starve and they’ll never get the cotton planted and harvested in time to make any money. The people who were trained to do it now are enjoying their freedom by not doing so, and Grace is left trying to convince everyone to do things for the good of the community where before they were used to working because they had to, under threat of punishment.

As you might expect, things take a turn for the worse. Grace is left trying to instill some idealized form of democracy that simply doesn’t work and ends up nearly killing people, and when it doesn’t hold together she falls back into the same arrogant martyrdom that she supposedly rejected at the end of the last movie. And her efforts of enforcing freedoms end up becoming their own type of tyranny as slowly things slide from democracy to communism to a different, less efficient form of slavery, where the slaves are employees but paid in false money because Grace can’t trust them to spend real money wisely, who work the same jobs with the same benefits as before, just under a different name. And when they begin to ask for more than that, feeling that it’s there right, she ends up assuming the literal role of slave-driver, which is what some of them seemingly want anyway.

The staged sets of Dogville return, though they go much further with including structures and details.

It all finally comes down to a revelation: the book of law wasn’t a testament of oppression by the white family, but a joint effort from Mam and Wilhelm, who as a young man saw the end of slavery and realized that the world that they went out into would likely be far more difficult and dangerous than the comfortable servitude of Manderlay and its simple, known slavery. In fact, most of the slaves knew about it and simply didn’t mind, happy to continue their lives until Grace came in with her armed men and imposed a way of life that was supposed to be better but simply didn’t work. Grace, who has been groomed to take Mam’s place by the slaves, flees from Manderlay with an angry mob of people behind her, insisting that she come back and subjugate them.

Like its predecessor, Manderlay as a film is again on a black empty set, though this time more embellished with the plantation fence and the shacks and fields that people work. And like that movie, it’s broken up into very strict formal chapters, with narration by John Hurt. The problem isn’t with those affectations, though I feel they were all universally used to better effect in the first movie, but instead in how similar and yet less profound its statements are. I already hinted at Grace’s seeming lack of wisdom learned from the first movie, once again wading in and doing the most wrong-headed thing for supposedly noble reasons. But it’s much more simple than that: the movie’s conclusions simply don’t justify its themes.

Von Trier has always worked with films that err on the side of provocation, stating outright that he wants people to be uncomfortable so they’ll consider new possibilities and proceed into unfamiliar mental territory. The problem is that he’s somewhat out of his depth here, taking the complexities of racial tension and slavery fairly specific to America and appropriating them into a weirdly wrong-headed screed about the perils of democracy and the foibles of the oppressed. Which are perfectly okay themes, but they’re presented in absolutely the wrong way, wrapped in a strange dark fairy tale that holds no water and has all the nuance of someone who only knows of America from afar. What felt like genuine allegory in Dogville feels like ponderous, thudding pretense in Manderlay. It simply doesn’t engage on the same level, and ends up becoming preachy and hollow in its shock value. It’s the movie that von Trier’s detractors always accuse him of making.

Danny Glover’s Wilhelm is the fulcrum on which Manderlay functions, and he’s also the best part of the film.

Part of this is the recast, I think. Bryce Dallas Howard is no Nicole Kidman even on her best day, and Kidman was very near her best in Dogville. Howard’s Grace feels younger and less concerned about the actual implications that supposedly plague her with doubts about humanity, to the point that she feels much more hollow. She doesn’t seem like a woman who came through hell and discovered something prior to this film, though that’s as much a fault of the script as it is with the actress. It’s frustrating, tempting me to claim I would like this film more if Kidman was involved, but it’s so hard to say. The character feels so similar in arc that it might as well be some sort of remake, saying very similar cynical things in a new but not novel context.

Which leaves us only with the last film of this as-yet-unfinished trilogy: Wasington. I don’t know what Wasington is, and von Trier isn’t saying, beyond noting that he wasn’t happy with the script and won’t work on it until he is. There’s also the problem of Manderlay’s poor performance—the movie is one of the most divisive of von Trier’s modern career, and was a box office failure. I wonder just what he has to say with Wasington, what version of America he wants to show, and how bad the script was that he rejected it outright and went on to make three more movies since. I assume we would return to Grace in a new situation, perhaps going for a more aged character and perhaps a more political setting? Who knows? At this point it’s basic conjecture, but after the troubled result of Manderlay I am glad he’s taking his time, though I do want him to go and finish it eventually, even if it’s in some different incongruous form. It wouldn’t be like von Trier to leave a statement unsaid just because he wasn’t sure.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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