Thursday, September 14, 2006


The first Lars Von Trier film I saw was Dancer in the Dark, and I was really bothered by it. But, I'd heard good things about Dogville, so I decided to check it out and was overwhelmed by how good it was. My main criticism of Dancer in the Dark was that the lead character was so acquiescent to her fate, just accepting all this punishment and not reacting to it. That's why the end of Dogville is so powerful, because it totally messes with the idea of the suffering melodramatic heroine.

So, Dogville was great and I was excited to see Von Trier's followup. Manderlay is a very challenging, thought provoking film that's one of the most biting films made in recent times. Even more than Dogville, it's is a direct attack on American policy and belief, both conservative and liberal.

The film's opening shot, with the zoom in on the perfectly white map is striking, particularly the transition into action down on the stage. The style here is basically the same as Dogville. I read a couple of reviews that talked about how the style was a distancing device. I don't know if that was the intention, but for me, the stage setting drew me in a lot more than it would have if this was shot on a real plantation. What the style does is reduce the film to the essentials, the few important props and the actors. Stripping away the excess makes the story more timeless, and because the intention is to create an allegory, that's critical.

Some of the stuff that happens in the film is disturbing and could easily be misinterpreted as racist if taken out of context, or even in context. I was uncomfortable watching some of this, but I think the film has an intelligence that makes it clear that it's working on a satirical/metaphorical level, not a literal one. It also means that the characters aren't necessarily going to be developed or behave in the way you'd expect from a traditional film. Some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, but I don't really mind that. The stage setting gives Lars the freedom to create something less real, a world where Defoe can give a speech like the women and savages part and have it work. You could read it as bad acting, but I think the stilted delivery works in this world.

Nicole Kidman was fantastic as Grace, but I'm not sure if this film would work as well with her in the lead. The physical resemblance between her and Lauren Bacall would have driven home the thematic point about habituation of systems, but Bryce Dallas Howard's naive youthfulness brought a lot to the role. Plus, I think it would be difficult to accept the fact that Grace, who wiped out an entire village of people at the end of Dogville, could be so self righteous here. Howard pulls off a lot of difficult stuff and keeps the character grounded in this odd world.

If you read this film just as it plays, it's got a message that's a bit difficult to accept, the idea that slaves don't really want freedom, they prefer having someone to blame for the bad things in their lives. That's the sort of message you'd expect from something like Birth of a Nation. However, what makes the film so much more is the way that Von Trier shows you how systems of power perpetuate the ill treatment of disadvantaged people. When Grace arrives, she sees a fully functioning society that is morally abhorrent to her. From her perspective, the slaves are victims, so cut off from the world that they're not even aware that they should be free. She brings that freedom and expects them to immediately leave the mansion and start new lives.

I'm not sure how much Von Trier thought of film to film continuity when making this, but it would seem that Grace's experience in Dogville informs a lot of her actions here. There she was essentially made into a slave, hated it, and ultimately took revenge on the whole town and reclaimed her freedom. She was a freeperson made into a slave, and was unable to accept that lifestyle. She was vindictive about having something taken away from her and lashed out at the town with the power her family possessed.

So, she is coming from an experience where she could use her power to reclaim her freedom. That is totally different from someone who is completely powerless and also no idea of what it's like to be free. If you've spent your whole life as a slave, with a strict routine, freedom would be a terrifying unknown. Some of them may have dreamt about being free of Mam, but they're not prepared when that dream actually come true.

Von Trier's basic point with the film is that systemic oppression creates a class of people who are dependent on the oppressor and unable to function on their own. This obviously applies to freed blacks after the Civil War, who lived in a society that granted them freedom, but would not offer them real opportunities to support themselves. They had no choice but to revert to the same kind of arrangement they were living in in slavery. Most of these people were born into slavery, so they lacked the experience with which to run their own lives.

So, the slaves turn to Grace, their liberator, or rather, Grace takes charge of this aimless band, and tries to show them how to be free. Here is where she begins to run into problems. For the system to work, it requires the labor that was provided by slaves. So, what she's doing is putting them to work at the same jobs, just now with the chance to reap the rewards of their own harvest. However, those rewards are off in the distance, for now, they work without anything to distinguish this labor from slave labor.

Von Trier's scenario applies equally well to any sort of institutional system. Prison is a great example, once you go into prison, it becomes very difficult to return to life in mainstream society, the routine of prison becomes ingrained.

But I think the most potent interpretation is to read the film as a critique of US foreign policy, particularly in Iraq. Grace, like the United States, has high minded ideals and believes that it should work to free these imprisoned people from the rule of a cruel dictator. However, saying someone's free does not make them free. Freedom is a choice someone has to make, you can't force it on them, and it's the same with democracy in Iraq. Bush's greatest hubris is the idea that you can spread democracy by force, and Grace does the same thing, she says she wants people to be free, but winds up controlling them, just until they get to freedom. It's the same in Iraq, people become dependent on the US military in the same way that they were previously dependent on Hussein.

If we're to look to the future, Von Trier indicates that following the failure of US involvement in Iraq, the Iraqi people will turn to a new dictator and the previous status quo will be returned. There's also clearly a mocking of liberal arrogance here, liberals love to talk about "the people," but when it comes time to actually deal with them, they're usually a lot less affectionate.

I think the film does a great job of dramatizing the steps that the plantation takes on the way to its new form. Both this film and Dogville do a wonderful job of showing the evoultion of community, there's none of the typical montages to skip through things, rather Von Trier takes his time to show us processes at work and make us as invested in their success as the characters are.

Grace tries to create a democratic government, but in bringing it about, she takes on a level of dictatorial power. The authority that her gangsters provide allows her to force people to come to the town meetings. In theory, freedom should mean that the meetings are optional, but she is sacrificing temporary freedom to get more down the line. Her governing strategy blows up when the people vote to kill Wilma. So, democracy is good, unless the people choose to do the wrong thing, that's what she seems to think. This moment raises the issue of whether she did the moral thing by killing Wilma. Should she have instead tried to lobby the people to be more lenient in their justice? This bit ties into the end revelations about Mam's Law. Because there's so many of the slaves, they always have some power over their master. Their numbers mean they have the ability to force Grace into doing something she doesn't want to do.

The major subplot in the film revolves Grace's lust for Timothy. Here, Von Trier, is juxtaposing the simultaneous attraction/repulsion that an upper class woman like Grace would have to an African man. She doesn't see him as a personality, rather he is a collection of traits that she casts onto him, something that's made explicit when she finds out that he is a Type VII, chameleon. Grace generally holds herself above the slaves, and is disgusted by her own feelings. This reinforces Grace's arrogance, she feels perfectly fine running these people's lives, but would never think of actually loving one of them. This fits well with the way that Grace's fancy clothes and high class demeanor separated her from the salt of the earth Dogville folk.

When they finally do have sex, Grace is essentially used, her face obscured, she's an object for Timothy to fuck. So, things have flipped, and rather than Timothy being the object, Grace now is. Grace's feelings cause her deep shame, and when she's whipping Timothy at the end, it's as much about punishing herself.

About that ending, the successful harvest is a great payoff because we've been with these characters for so long, living their struggle, so we get the vicarious joy of their success. I think Dogville was more successful at creating strong individual characters within the community, but here we get a strong sense of the community as a whole.

This leads into the big revelation about Mam's Law. The slaves have chosen security over freedom, and for them, it makes a lot of sense. They get food regardless of the harvest's success and always have someone to blame for the problems in their life. The film is a critique of this victim mentality, but makes it easy to understand why these characters choose to live this way. Basically, the US government let them down by failing to provide any viable options for their post-slavery existence. That means the best they can do is try to maximize the possibilities of their current existence. What they need Grace for is to serve as the locus of their blame. If they don't have a Mam, there's no excuse for their problems. This is the system they've had for all their lives and no one wants to leave that security.

Grace whipping Timothy isn't quite the cathartic hellfire of Dogville's finale, but it's still very powerful. Here we see the character taking the frustration of her months on Manderlay and putting it into one burst of violence. In the end, the film seems to indicate that systems create cycles and it takes more than surface change to alter peoples' behavior.

I think Manderlay is a great, great film, but it doesn't quite match up to Dogville. Part of that is the style was fresher and more surprising in Dogville, but also that the supporting cast there were much stronger characters. Here, Grace is more clear, but the others exist more as pieces in a scenario than real people. Plus, the finale of Dogville was astonishing.

But that doesn't mean that this isn't a fantastic movie. It's interesting both on its own terms, and as an extension of the themes in its predecessor. I really hope that Von Trier does fiinish the trilogy and make Wasington, but if not, this still stands as one of the most inventive, politically aware series of films around.


AVI to MP4 Converter said...

Undoubtedly valuable information... Thank you for your article. Will tell my friends about your site.

mp3 to m4r said...

The heroine of the performance is wonderful