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Von Trier's newest brings plenty of things to mind. Hegel and Thomas the Tank Engine among others...
By Tara P Woolnough
Far more than a mere critique of the USA by a Dane who has never even been there, Manderlay uses the focus of slavery to consider many themes crucial to what it means to be human. It is the mid 1930s when Grace and her gangster father – a nice cameo by Willem Dafoe – are driving through Alabama and happen to make pit-stop outside the Manderlay plantation. After a black woman runs out of the gates to ask for Grace’s help, Grace is shocked to find a small black community still living in slavery, 70 years after its supposed abolition, under the white plantation owner mam. In an act which seems to precipitate mam’s death shortly thereafter, Grace intervenes in the whipping of one of the slaves, a proud young man called Timothy. Despite her father’s warnings Grace resolves to stay with the inhabitants of Manderlay and, with the support of several ofher father’s gangsters, she sets about overseeing the community’s transition towards a democratic way of life. However, young Grace’s ideals about freedom and democracy are challenged when it becomes clear that these people may not yet be ready.
The controversy that arose around Dogville, the first installment of von Trier’s 'USA – Land of Opportunities' trilogy, seemed to centre around the notion what this was an unfair attack on America by a man who had no experience or real knowledge of the country. Is Von Trier suggesting that the American dream is a sham, that their brand of democracy is less than wholly democratic? Perhap she is. But it is far too facile an interpretation to imagine that von Trier’s questions apply only to America. The recent furore over the now infamous Danish cartoons seems to make the film all the more pertinent, and to launch the movie outside of the arena it is ostensibly set in.
Can one impose freedom by force? And when oppression is desired by those who are oppressed does it cease to be oppression? There are many issues at work in Manderlay and it is fascinating to see questions of power, justice, and retribution unfold through the interplay of black, white, father, child, man, woman, slave, and master. I guess it all goes back to that smart old dude Hegel… But maybe we’re getting a bit carried away now.
Bryce Dallas Howard performs admirably following in Nicole Kidman’s shoes as Grace, giving enough consistency to believe we are seeing the same character, but enough of her own style to make it a new role. Danny Glover also deserves mention for his turn as Wilhelm, whose character turns out to have some unexpected sides. For those that have not seen Dogville, I will not spoil the surprise of the original set and styling, but suffice it to say that it’s about theatre and a form of expression that leaves more to the imagination.
As for the narration technique that would be equally at home with the likes of Thomas the Tank Engine: there is much humour to be found in the mismatch of its avuncular tones and the often very serious subject matter. Although pretty heavy going in places, Manderlay achieves great overall effect through minimal visual manipulation. It's a very rich film that incorporates tragedy, comedy, and many complex issues (albeit ones that are sometimes only touched on superficially), meaning that this is in no way idle entertainment; von Trier wants to provoke a response from his audience, whether that be to stimulate thought or to criticise the film.