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Overall Rating

Awesome: 12.9%
Worth A Look61.29%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad: 22.58%
Total Crap: 3.23%

4 reviews, 7 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Like 'Mandingo' without the quiet dignity or whimsy"
2 stars

When Lars von Trier released “Dogville,” the first part of his proposed trilogy exploring the societal ills of America (a country that he has never actually visited because of a crippling fear of flying), I wrote that while I found the film to be nothing more than another excuse for the Danish director to torture and humiliate an actress in the name of “art,” it was nevertheless an ambitious film that deserved to be seen and discussed by those who were willing to embrace more challenging works. Now, the second (and apparently final, if von Trier’s latest proclamations are to be believed) installment, “Manderlay,” has been unleashed and cineastes throughout the world will be relieved to know that this one is far from required viewing unless you are a masochist of the highest order. Whatever intriguing qualities that “Dogville”might have contained are in short supply this time around and we are left with little more than an artsy-fartsy version of “Mandingo,” lacking only the taste, dignity and subtlety

For those who somehow managed to either miss “Dogville” or underwent treatment with the people from “Eternal Sunshine of the Eternal Mind,” that film featured Nicole Kidman as Grace, a mysterious woman on the run from gangsters who hides out in a remote Colorado mining town and is cruelly mistreated and abused by her seemingly benevolent protectors. After 150 minutes of torture (including repeated rapes and shacklings), the gangsters return and she is revealed to be the daughter of their leader–in the end, a wiser Grace goes off with her father but first announces that “I want to make the world a little better,” which she achieves with the helpful advantage of a machine gun. The purpose, I guess, was for von Trier to point out that Americans, no matter how low their station in life, will always find someone worse off than themselves to cruelly mistreat and will often as not do so under the guise of moral superiority. Not exactly the most startlingly original notion to hang a film on and certainly not one that requires three full hours to convey.

“Manderlay” picks up right where “Dogville” left off (right down to once again using his Brecht-meets-“Our Town” aesthetic of setting the entire story on a bare stage with chalk outlines representing the locations), the once-victimized and now-cynical Grace played by Kidman has inexplicably regressed into a younger idealist played by Bryce Dallas Howard. (Actually, this came be explained–after being goaded into agreeing to appear in all three films at a Cannes press conference, Kidman bailed as soon as she possibly could). Along with her gangster father (Willem Dafoe replacing James Caan) and his flunkies, Grace arrives in the Deep South and comes across a plantation where slavery is still in effect even though it is 1933. When the matriarch (Lauren Bacall, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo) of the plantation dies and the slaves (led by Danny Glover) have no idea of where to go or what to do, Grace benevolently assumes control of the plantation and takes it upon herself to teach the blacks about what it means to be free people in a democracy while forcing the whites who were once in charge to work as indentured servants.

In a twist that will come as a surprise to virtually no one, her attempts to better their lives fail miserably. When she spots the dilapidated state of the shacks of her charges, she encourages them to venture into a small nearby wooded area to cut down trees for building materials–unfortunately, this indirectly leads to the near-destruction of the blooming cotton crop. She decides to introduce her charges to the concept of democratic rule and a majority vote and almost instantly, they are voting one of their own to death for the crime of stealing scraps of food from a dying child. She looks upon a couple of the former slaves, the proud and aloof Timothy (Isaach De Bankole) and the noble and dignified Wilhelm (Danny Glover) as special cases that the others should hope to emulate, only to discover that both have shocking secrets and a willingness to sell out their own people in a heartbeat. By the end, she is forced to consider the notion that for all of her efforts, they may have actually been happier as slaves–they may not have been free but they didn’t have to worry about finding a job, making money or feeding themselves.

As you have no doubt noticed even by this very brief description of a very long movie, “Manderlay” is meant to be symbolic, not only of race relations in America (he indicts not only those responsible for such relations but liberal-minded hand-wringing on the subject as well) but of the chaos that can ensue when Americans institute democratic rule to a people who have never known it before and who have no working idea of what such a thing really means. The problem here is that while the subject matter is provocative enough, von Trier doesn’t seem to have any particular idea of what he wants to say about race, democracy or any of the other topics he brings up–by the oh-so-ironic end (in which Grace winds up becoming the very thing that she tried to eliminate), I got the sense that von Trier only told this story because he wanted to film a scene in which a petite white woman strips a black man (Isaach De Bankole) to the waist and brutally whips him. Adding to the bad taste that one gets from the film is another end credits sequence, once again scored to David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” that depict ugly and brutal visions of racial violence in America over the decades–these are horrifying images but since they are in the service of a film that hasn’t earned the right to use them, their usage here comes off as tacky and exploitative.

In the past, the one saving grace of von Trier’s work has been in his gift with working with his lead actresses–whatever one might have made of “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark” or “Dogville,” he did get great performances out of people as varied as Emily Watson, Bjork and Kidman. However, even that ability seems to have escaped him this time around because while Bryce Dallas Howard (the one saving grace of “The Village”) does a reasonably good job under the circumstances, the version of Grace that von Trier has given her to portray is disappointingly shallow and uninteresting. For most of the running time, Grace comes across as a dimwit who never quite realizes how condescending she is acting towards the people she is supposedly helping–this could be interesting but Howard always seems just a little too conscious of the irony of the situation. As for the rest of the large cast, it once again comes as a perverse surprise that von Trier can lure so many well-known actors (besides those already mentioned, the likes of Chloe Sevigny, Udo Kier and Jeremy Davies also appear) to come to Sweden and then give them virtually nothing to do. (Bacall is gone by the end of the first reel and Sevigny has a role too small to even be labeled a cameo.)

While marginally less painful to watch than “Dogville,” mostly because it is 40 minutes shorter, “Manderlay” is nothing more than the confused and pedantic rantings of a crank in full froth–entertaining enough if you are the crank but not quite so much if you are the crank’s audience. I am baffled by Lars von Trier and his work but I am still strangely gladdened by the fact that such a figure exists in the world of film today–his very existence proves that there are still people out there willing to create distinct and highly personal films, even if they aren’t very good. Thinking of him and his work, I am reminded of the description of the professor played by Sam Kinison in “Back to School”; “He really seems to care–about what, I have no idea.”

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originally posted: 02/17/06 16:04:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Chicago Film Festival For more in the 2005 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2005 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2005 Austin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2006 Portland Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/08/09 Carol Baker another dogville that is for the dogs. How stupid 2 stars
11/03/08 Shaun Wallner Well made. 4 stars
1/30/06 james So P.C. it makes you yawn before it even begins 1 stars
11/15/05 Mr Vengeance ! 5 stars
11/14/05 Dora An insightful masterpiece 5 stars
11/14/05 Zurro better than dogville (and it is difficult) 5 stars
9/17/05 Daniel Leech Enlightening and frightening 5 stars
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  DVD: 08-Aug-2006



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