Movie Review: Manderlay

By Moira Sullivan
Movie Magazine International
Lars Von Trier has created a new film that explores the roots of social inequity in the United States: Manderlay. The first thing that comes to mind is how much Lars Von Trier seems to know about the conditions of slavery in the southern United States. One is also amazed about how much he knows about the US - period, given that he has never lived there for any period of time. But since American culture is served around the world with the morning coffee its not so strange that someone can create a story culled from a "mediated America" and history books. As Von Trier says himself, "America is everywhere" so he claims he is "60% American". This may come as news for immigrants who despite half a lifetime in their adopted homelands are never considered "natives".

The macro of this microcosm of southern life in the 1930ís is a giant map of the United States with dotted lines finding their way to Alabama. Later they morph into automobiles and the motorcade of Grace, her gangster father and his men. The aerial shots of Manderlay, an old world plantation, are vivid presented as a birdís eye view, complete with lots of Hitchcock like birds. The stage consists of designated areas offset by thick black lines. Gone are the chalk drawings from Dogville, Von Trierís previous film about Grace and the set design is in sync with the film: when doors are knocked on, sounds are added to the sound track.

One day Grace interupts the whipping of a black man. She learns that the people on the Manderlay plantation are still slaves, despite the fact that this was abolished 70 years ago. She decides to intervene, despite the protests of her father who has recently rescued her from her own slavery in Dogville. With perfect elocution, Dad (Wilhem Dafoe) tells her to look away, because this is a ďlocal problemĒ. The widowed "Mam" has been running the plantation for years. We learn there are seven derogatory archetypes of Negroes on the plantation described in Mamís handwritten book that she begs Grace to burn after her death. Lauren Bacall as matriarch is not long on screen.

The thesis of the film is what happens to people who have been enslaved and have grown accustomed to it. When freedom is 'offered' how is it received? The sharecroppers initially resist harvesting their crops or repairing their cottages because they are not whipped into action. Once they get underway, they do fine enough. Of course, they are held to their freedom with guns to get them into the spirit of their new life. And are "educated" with lessons given by Grace who teaches them about "democracy".

The problem of the film IS Grace. Women in Manderlay are shadows, but not Grace. Grace is the "enlightened one" who brings knowledge to free the slaves, not herself, and not the women, as she even executes an elderly woman for stealing food from a child in a coma. Grace dreams of sleeping with the men scripted, by Von Trier include images of Bedoin chiefs and dates.

Despite the flaws, Manderlay is a well crafted stylistically executed film with a compelling narrative brought to life through the brilliant oration of John Hurt in voiceover. Rather than analyzing why people allow themselves to be enslaved, Grace would have done far better to analyze what happened to her in Dogville.

For Movie Magazine this is Moira Sullivan, Stockholm SWEDEN.
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2005- Denmark / Sweden / Netherlands / France / Germany / UK