Saturday, September 10, 2005

TIFF 2005: "MANDERLAY" (Review)

(Masters) Denmark, 139 minutes
Written and directed by Lars von Trier
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Danny Glover, Lauren Bacall, Willem Dafoe, Isaach de Bankole

I haven't read Lars von Trier's "Dogme 95" manifesto since about...oh, 1995...but while I recall some condemnation therein on the use of artificial lighting, special effects, and even tripods, there was obviously no rule forbidding filmmakers from blithely recycling anything else. Here's the rare art house entry that conforms to the Joe Bob Briggs definition of sequel integrity: to make the exact same movie again and again ("which is not easy"-Joe Bob Briggs Goes To The Drive-In, 1987).

I'm being flippant, of course, but this is a film that invites--no, demands--extreme reactions: "Manderlay", the second installment in the Danish provocateur's "USA Trilogy", is hardly a spam-in-a-can rehash ala "Friday the 13th Part X" or a flashback-padded rip-off like "Rocky 4". But from the opening Griffith-era intertitles and familiar John Hurt narration we're clearly back in the same barren, Brechtian domain of partial sets (a staircase, an iron gate) and simple stage markings ("Red Clay", "The Garden", "The Barn") that was once so bold and innovative in the inaugural chapter--2003's "Dogville"--and now just seems lazy.

The events pick up immediately after the end of the first chapter, with Grace (then Nicole Kidman, now Howard) having fled the mining town of Dogville, Colorado, which in a torrent of Old Testament payback, she left slaughtered and in flames for her prostitution and degradation. She's travelling with crimelord father (then James Caan, now Dafoe) as part of a gangster caravan now entering the state of Alabama.

Having stopped by a plantation, Grace is accosted by a hysterical black woman who pleads for help to save her son from a public whipping. Ever the crusader (to her father's bemusement), Grace intervenes and reminds the plantation's owner, the ailing "Mam" (Bacall, confusing not reprising her original "Dogville" role), that slavery has been abolished in America for 70 years. Her father's cynical prediction that most whites won't honour the terms of emancipation (forty acres and a mule) is correct. The former slaves, with aged Wilhelm (Glover) as their chief spokesman, are bewildered by the concept of this sudden "freedom"--the old system at least provided some order in their lives. Mam takes ill and on her deathbed, requests that Grace destroy a journal she has kept long-hidden. Grace instead keeps the book--"Mam's Law", a self-penned chronicle of black stereotypes and predictable behaviors--and informs her father that she will stay at Manderlay to make sure the seeds of democracy are sewn--appropriately enough, until the first cotton harvest.

The second act is tightly plotted and well-acted, with von Trier gleefully toying with our character loyalities: with the tables turned and the remaining whites now the servants, Grace impatiently tries to ingratiate her to the community, who seem to have learned all the wrong lessons from their captors. She browbeats them into using the trees in the orchard to repairing their ramshackle homes, which destroys the crops' natural protection from the dust storms (a rare non-Dogme foray into digital FX). She introduces them to the concept of democratic vote, which soons turns to mob rule. When a sick child dies from malnutrition, the old woman who stole her food is sentenced to death. The former slaves, fed up with Grace's condescention and smug superiority, order her to execute justice (with a bullet), then demand that she step down and bestow the running of Manderlay to them. Insulted and bewildered by their apparent inability to embrace her noble ideals and tortured by her lust for the forbidden flesh of Timothy (de Bankole), the virile Mansi slave she first saved from flogging, Grace in turn reconsiders the simplistic, racist philosophy of "Mam's Law" and the hateful, brutish tactics of the former slavers.

Whereas "Dogville" was inspired by Bertolt Brecht's "The Three Penny Opera", von Trier discovered the seed of the idea for "Manderlay" in an unlikely source: Pauline Reage's notorious S&M staple "The Story Of O". The introduction by French critic Jean Paulhan included an anecdote about the fallout of a slave rebellion in 19th Bermuda, in which freed slaves requested that they be returned to captivity, and when their former master refused, he and his family were massacred.

Sensitively performed by the ensemble of vets and newcomers (it is, after all,essentially a filmed stage play against a black backdrop), "Manderlay" is a gripping and challenging in-your-face confrontation with timely issues, but like "Dogville", is ultimately undone by running a good half hour too long. Bryce Dallas Howard's goody-goody dad Ron must surely be shocked by his daughter's willingness to bare all, literally and figuratively, in a performance that is impassioned but lacking in Kidman's mounting fury. Howard's Grace comes off more like a whiny sophomore General Arts major in a do-rag than the hellfire-and-brimstone Angel Of Vengeance she became at the end of the previous film.

That this is all, in the end, an allegory for Bush's imposing of "regime change" on Iraq should come as no surprise. But for those who didn't pay attention or are hopelessly dim, David Bowie's "Young Americans" is cued up again over the end credits to further drive home the point with a sledgehammer, this time over a barrage of searing images of a praying Dubya, black soldiers in Afghanistan, the lynchings, segregation, MLK, babies in KKK garb, etc, etc. That von Trier repeatedly takes such fish-in-a-barrel shots at America, a country he has never visited, undermines the series' otherwise remarkable power and resonance for this viewer-- surely, a smart guy like this can't be oblivious to the history of slavery on his own continent, specifically, the former Danish West Indies.

All that highfalutin' aside, I wish von Trier would've pushed the technique more--cinematically, he's on cruise control here and is clearly more interested in heavy-handed polemics and making the audience flinch. He's becoming William Castle with a PhD... in "Misanthropy".

Robert J. Lewis