Plantation Nation


Few movies this century have been more polarizing than Lars von Trier’s 2003 Dogville. Von Trier’s boldly stylized parable of exploitation and vengeance moved some and enraged others—a few of whom took it personally as an assault on American values.

Vitriol may be a heady cocktail, and von Trier is nothing if not a professional bad boy. Still, a stunt-meister really shouldn’t repeat himself. Where von Trier’s 1994 TV miniseries The Kingdom was a mad mix of hospital soap opera, Saturday-morning supernaturalism, and genteel detective story, spiked with gross-out effects and served with a sneer, its 1997 sequel was only more, and consequently less, of the same. So too Manderlay, von Trier’s disappointing Dogville sequel. Working once more vérité-style on a vast open set, the filmmaker reuses Dogville‘s formal devices, and his boredom is contagious.

Manderlay follows Dogville‘s heroine, Grace, from the sinful Rocky Mountain settlement she had destroyed at the climax of the last movie to an Alabama plantation where slavery is still in effect. The beautiful and high-minded gangster princess is now played by a flustered Bryce Dallas Howard—and no less than the original movie, Nicole Kidman turns out to be a difficult act to follow. Where Kidman’s poised Grace was a self-effacing pinnacle of virtue (as well as a vision of loveliness), Howard’s is callow, willful, and shrilly self-righteous. As her father, Willem Dafoe is weak and mumbling; he projects none of the authority (or film-historic resonance) that junior godfather James Caan brought to the role.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions: Grace sets out to right a wrong. Using her father’s henchmen for muscle, she liberates the slaves and institutes her own regime, the “freed enterprise” of Manderlay. The world is turned upside down as the former masters must now toil for those who had served them—at one point forced to apply blackface, to demonstrate either Grace’s patronizing notions of democracy or von Trier’s bizarre theory of minstrelsy.

Majority rule, as we know, has its own dangers. In one of the movie’s major ironies, Grace encourages her charges to determine the correct time by putting it to a vote; in another, her eager ignorance of plantation ecology precipitates a dust storm that ruins the cotton crop, albeit affording the movie’s major triumph of mise-en-scéne. Grace can’t distinguish one of her charges from another; when the food runs out, she is mainly sex-starved. All of this plays out as flat, didactic, and lazy. Although ostensibly set in the 1930s, the narrative (provided by John Hurt, with far less brio than last time) employs the term “political correctness” in its current sense.

Although Manderlay has hardly occasioned the strong reactions enjoyed by Dogville, many critics apparently prefer it to its predecessor. This may have something to do with the assimilation of the earlier movie’s style, as well as von Trier’s willingness to address charged racial subject matter, but I suspect it has most to do with Manderlay‘s relative accessibility. Dogville was an allegory as elemental and slippery as the songs of John Wesley Harding. Manderlay is far less ambiguous.

Von Trier’s sense of outrage is here more obviously derived from the American photographs by Danish muckraker Jacob Holdt. As the plantation’s senior resident and Grace’s majordomo, Danny Glover is rarely wrong—mainly because he functions as the filmmaker’s sarcastic mouthpiece. Manderlay has something (but not too much) to say about race and post–Civil War reconstruction, as well as the impossibility of justice and the fact that suffering is not necessarily ennobling. More resonant, albeit soon dropped from the schema, is the parallel von Trier constructs between Grace’s enforced lessons in democracy and would-be nation-building and George Bush’s Iraq adventure.

In Dogville, Grace was a woman martyred; in Manderlay, she is, in the end, only a woman scorned (and a guilty liberal at that). Von Trier is enough of a showman to orchestrate a series of dramatic surprises and narrative reversals to end the movie. The world turns upside down again—which is not to say that it’s right side up. He even repeats the earlier film’s devastating coda. That it actually still works is Manderlay‘s greatest debt to Dogville.