Reviewed By brianorndorf
Posted 01/29/06 14:26:40

"Interesting, but Von Trier is losing his vision"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Manderlay” is filmmaking bully Lars Von Trier’s second installment of his equally beloved and loathed “America” trilogy. While still puffy with involving drama and tremendous performances, the creative gas for this idea is quickly running out, leaving the film often downright desperate to rile up the audience with incendiary visuals and screenwriting.

After unleashing her fury on the citizens of Dogville, Grace (sharply played by Bryce Dallas Howard), her father (Willem Dafoe), and his pack of traveling gangsters make their way down to the American south. There they stumble upon the little town of Manderlay and the cotton plantation owned by Mam (Lauren Bacall), run by her small population of slaves (including Danny Glover). Appalled by the situation, Grace forces her way into the plantation and switches the structure of power, giving the slaves their “freedom,” and encouraging them to take charge of their lives. What she soon finds is a group of people who might not be so willing to enact the changes asked of them.

Part two of director Lars Von Trier’s “America” trilogy, “Manderlay” picks up exactly where 2003’s “Dogville” left off, both in story and desire to raise some eyebrows. “Dogville” was a sly concoction, enjoying both Von Trier’s enthusiasm to make people uncomfortable and his remarkable production design audacity. “Manderlay” doesn’t share most of the same cast (Nicole Kidman and James Caan are out as daughter and father), but that doesn’t stop Von Trier from finding a renewed sense of purpose with his epic comment on American racial history and “white guilt,” nor his means to exhaust the viewers with his particular perfume of madness.

Dubious intentions aside, “Manderlay” is an engrossing piece of art-house cinema, relying heavily on talent to make its points. The film continues the minimalist staging of “Dogville,” where houses are just dotted outlines against the floor and sound effects fill in for things like flowing water and opening doors. Von Trier is superb making something out of nothing, and “Manderlay” is just as effective as “Dogville” in creating an arresting atmosphere where drama and performance are highlighted, and the camera can act as a voyeur on the tensions that rise.

While greatly effective as a drama, “Manderlay” feels like Von Trier’s grip on his target is slipping. A blatant parallel to the Iraq war, the film is an interesting exploration of the peculiarities of power and ego, hypocrisy, and the difficult truths of submission. However, Von Trier doesn’t stop there. This being a film about race, Von Trier wastes little time before introducing Grace’s sexual curiosity (or white women in general) with her new black neighbors (a topic the filmmaker seems obsessed with). Here Von Trier goes outside of his initial intentions simply to pick a fight, and he doesn’t do his film any favors. While a critical factor to his acerbic personality, this time outlandish and incendiary screenwriting fails Von Trier, and derails whatever poetic social commentary momentum “Manderlay” is struggling to muster.

While it’s easy to disregard Von Trier as a blowhard, his films do coast along with a specific amount of entertaining lunacy. As interesting as it is, “Manderlay” is a dangerous step toward Von Trier buying into his own hype. Concluding the film with a photo montage of American racial injustice (oh yes, the Rodney King video is used here), the filmmaker skirts the line between hammering home a fascinating and button-pushing point and just simply repeating himself.

I hope the final act of his indictment/valentine of American hypocrisy, 2007’s “Wasington,” can somehow bring Von Trier back to clarity in his arguments and more relish in his accusations.

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