Say what you will about Lars Von Trier, but nobody will ever accuse the guy of being a wimp. Long before sweet little Denmark acquired a reputation for feistiness by daring to print a handful of controversial cartoons, this Danish filmmaker was making a career of upsetting apple carts in provocative masterpieces like Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark and that whole Dogme thing he was instrumental in engineering.
If anything, Von Trier seems to relish his position as the cinema's preeminent provocateur, a role he plays to the hilt in his rigorously ascetic button-pusher, Manderlay. This is not a film for those with easily bruised sensibilities, so let's get the warning out of the way straight off: In Manderlay's unforgiving and decidedly non-P.C. world view, everybody is either a slave or a sadist (or both), and many of our most deeply felt assumptions about faith, hope and basic human decency are routinely shredded. In case you might still be wondering, this is not exactly Cinderella Man.
Manderlay is the middle installment of Von Trier's notorious "American trilogy," a series that began with Dogville and will end (presumably in much blood, fire and gnashing of teeth) with something called Wasington. Many have taken issue with the filmmaker's decision to makes movies about America, a place that the famously flight-phobic Von Trier has never even visited, but that seems almost beside the point. Von Trier would probably be the first to admit that the America of Manderlay and Dogville is only loosely grounded in reality; it's more a state of mind, a symbolic nexus where we're all among the "wretched and starving," a phrase that has little to do with the amount of food in our bellies or the quality of the roofs over our heads. Starvation in Von Trier-Land is all about lacking a spiritual and moral compass.
The subject matter here is every bit as daunting as Dogville's and, since Manderlay isn't so concerned with wrapping itself in the enigmatic poetry that characterized that film, it's an even tougher sell. Bryce Howard (who weirdly resembles her dad, Ron, only with hair) takes over for Nicole Kidman as Grace, who we last saw being horribly abused by the good folks of the Depression-era dustbowl (abuses reportedly mirrored by Kidman's treatment at the hands of her director on the set of Dogville).
As Manderlay opens, Grace and a couple of her father's underworld cronies have happened upon an isolated Alabama plantation where a handful of Caucasians (headed up by Lauren Bacall) lord over a community of black slaves. Never mind that slavery was abolished some 70 years ago — this is Von Trier's America, after all, where anything is possible. Time, space and history itself are merely tools, ripe for reconfiguring to the filmmaker's unique political and aesthetic ends.
Grace and the gangsters, unlikely liberators for sure, set about freeing the slaves, but it soon becomes evident that freedom is a much more elusive and perhaps dangerous concept than anyone imagined (the parallels with our attempts at bringing democracy to the Middle East are inescapable, but more on that later).
Grace is a born organizer and seemingly full of good will, but her "moral obligation" to reformat a slave mentality for freedom soon begins looking pathetic and eventually blows up in everyone's faces. Bad decisions are made, work goes undone, excuses and arguments snowball, and things generally go to hell. Factor in one or two natural catastrophes of Biblical proportions (and fraught with similarly titanic irony), and you've got a tale of failed utopia to rip your heart out.
What makes all of this especially unnerving is that Von Trier cuts right to the story's emotional and intellectual core, throwing out not only the niceties of narrative nuance, but stylistic flourishes and just about every other sort of artificial sweetening. Manderlay plays out on the same sort of bare, Brechtian stage as Dogville, an ultra-minimalist production composed of a handful of props and a stark floor where just a few words are stenciled to indicate what we're supposed to imagine there. The movie takes place in an America of the mind, after all (the only one that Von Trier really knows), so the barely tangible setting makes sense in a particularly disturbing way.
All of this unfolds like a curiously austere brand of slapstick, a terrible comedy of errors performed by people who can't begin to comprehend the absurdity of their situation (there's always humor in even the nastiest Von Trier film, but here it's so brittle it seems to turn to dust before our eyes). Grace plugs on with her program to indoctrinate former slaves into the wonderful world of democracy (creating all sorts of bizarre rules that transport the film into the realms of the surreal), even as fate and human nature conspire to make a life of official slavery look ever more appealing.
In the end, slaves and masters alike are doing what they do mostly out of habit — although, as the film's narrator helpfully points out, "Whether it was pleasurable or painful it was hard to tell" — as Von Trier grinds home his bleakly mocking reminder that the Underclass is eternal. Slaves will always be slaves, by any other name, and the new boss is always the same as the old boss.
Tough stuff, like I said, and if Manderlay weren't such a richly composed, meticulously realized artistic vision it'd be nearly unbearable.
Manderlay (which might well have been subtitled Freedom Follies) was made well before the recent advances of fire-breathing Islamists in elections in Egypt and Palestine, but the irony of democratically elected suicide bombers would certainly not go unappreciated by Von Trier. Come to think of it, maybe he's saving that one for the final installment of this remarkable and awful trilogy.