Media Never say never

Manderlay offers you the chance to lose friends but influence people

Let’s just get this sad but very true fact out of the way: You will probably never see Manderlay. You also probably never saw its predecessor Dogville . If you actually do (or did), it will (or likely did) happen one of two ways. Either (a) you saw a red-haired beauty on a movie poster or DVD box (Nicole Kidman in Dogville, Bryce Dallas Howard in Manderlay) and thought, “Sweet, I like me a purty redhead,” or (b) someone you thought was your friend told you to rent it. If it was (a) you probably fell asleep before the end of the first act and, if it was (b) you probably fell asleep before the end of the first act, then woke up, called your friend, and told him to never, ever, under any circumstances, call you again.

In Lars von Trier’s Manderlay, Willem Dafoe and Bryce Dallas Howard reprise the roles of gangster father and abused daughter created by James Caan and Nicole Kidman in the first film of the trilogy, Dogville.

This is not to say either film by director Lars von Trier is necessarily bad or that your friend, the one you’re never speaking to again, is an idiot; in fact, both (the films, not your friend) are quite brilliant in that way only Europeans appreciate. In particular the French, God bless their little hearts. So why am I so willing to bet you’ll hit stop on your DVD player after 20 minutes? Because the only thing that kept me from doing the very same thing is my editor, who expected me to cover the film. That’s right, money kept me in the theater. In other words, the only way the studio behind Manderlay will ever fill theaters is if it starts paying people to see its movie.

For the moment, let’s get past the whole premise, which is little more than a thinly veiled indictment of U.S. foreign policy by a Danish filmmaker who has never stepped foot in America. Some might hold that against him, but, hey, he gets it right most of the time. No, the real reason you won’t see the film has to do with a little trick those not in the know fall for: Von Trier’s unfinished American trilogy is filmed in a warehouse in the Brechtian theater style.








Put another way: Dogville and Manderlay are filmed entirely in a warehouse that’s been converted into a sparsely decorated stage with nothing but chalk outlines to demarcate the location of roads, homes, gardens, and whatever else you can imagine. Basically, the films are plays onscreen; set, lit, acted, and — sigh — paced like plays. Not that plays are boring. Von Trier’s plays-as-movies just lack the immediacy of live performance and, thus, begin to drag after about five minutes. That is, if you last that long. Plenty of people I know rented Dogville because of Kidman’s face only to turn it off when they realized what the hell they were watching.

Howard’s interpretation of Grace, the character Kidman received such praise for in 2003, can’t help but be influenced by her age, which reshapes the woman who emerged from Dogville as cynical about America as von Trier; the road from Dogville, Colorado to a Southern plantation where slavery still exists in 1933, has restored some of her idealism, which works well for the story being told and helps to establish the trilogy as only loosely connected. This newly recovered idealism also makes Grace’s rage over the discovery of Manderlay, the plantation in question, all the more convincing. While her gangster father (this time played by Willem Defoe instead of James Caan) discourages her from interfering, she naively uses his hired muscle to remove the plantation owners as heads of their well-oiled totalitarian state and establishes herself as the interim president of the “freed enterprise” of Manderlay, creating democracy where before no concept of it existed. Mayhem ensues.

Sound familiar?

But then, maybe it’s Howard who can explain it best: “What I felt was that Lars wasn’t necessarily only making a comment on America, which is why he basically set it in a warehouse,” she says. “I found a quote the other day: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ I think Lars really takes that responsibility seriously. He’s saying, ‘Yes, this movie is about America. But it’s also about Europe and this movie is absolutely about Africa.’ I agree with the questions he’s asking.”


Dir. Lars von Trier; writ. von Trier; feat. Bryce Dallas Howard, Willem Dafoe, Danny Glover, Lauren Bacall, Chloë Sevigny (R)

And the questions are not just about the U.S. role as self-appointed harbinger of democracy, but also its inability to truly confront the racial history that shaped the country and the prejudices that continue to muddy the uncomfortable dialogue between blacks and whites. These are questions that matter, that need to be asked, and beg discussion. That is, if anyone actually sees the film. Someone might have to pay you to see it, but, if you can stick with it till the end you might find yourself asking some of the same questions that consume von Trier.

As of press time, the San Antonio opening of Manderlay had been pushed back to March 10 at the Bijou.

By Cole Haddon