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Friday, March 3, 2006
Prepare to be overindulged
By KAORI SHOJI
However way you slice it, "Manderlay" is bound to offend you, even as it dazzles with its snide, superior wit. Guaranteed to cause acute discomfort, nothing about this movie will go down easily. It sticks to the walls of the mind.
But that's the way director Lars von Trier wants it. He has never been one to let anyone off lightly -- not his cast and crew (he's known to be one of the most demanding, difficult directors on the planet); and certainly not his audience, on whom he habitually inflicts emotional stress. He's the Great Dane (as in the dog), a growling, tenacious and unpredictable beast, and his barking is destined to echo forever in the hallways of cinematic history.
Von Trier can be a first-rate entertainer ("Breaking the Waves" and "The Kingdom"), but recently he seems more interested in making hate-hate socio-political statements about America, which, by the way, he's never visited.
"Manderlay" is the second of his "American Trilogy" series -- stories that revolve around a woman named Grace. In the first, "Dogville" (2003), Grace was played by the gorgeous and fragile Nicole Kidman, but she didn't sign on for this one (unsurprisingly, von Trier's stars often don't return for a second round) -- so for "Manderlay," von Trier picked bright young newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard. Her Grace is stronger, spunkier and much more domineering than the woman who was exploited mercilessly by the mean, narrow-minded hicks of Dogville.
The story picks up where the last one left off, in which Grace and her gangster dad (Willem Defoe), plus his brood of henchmen, drive away in limos in search of a new home. Dad, as usual, is making random sexist statements, like "Women are driven by sex. No matter how much they talk about politics and democracy, in the end they're governed by their sexual fantasies."
They wind up in the Deep South and come upon the Manderlay Estate, where, to Grace's surprise, slavery is still practiced. The ever-democratic Grace informs them that this is 1933 and that the Emancipation Proclamation has been in effect for the past 70 years, so what was wrong with them?
Slave spokesman Wilhelm (Danny Glover) tells her simply that this had always been the state of things inside the confines of the Manderlay gates and her dad tells her to leave well alone, since he wants to move on.
But Grace is adamant for justice and takes over Manderlay, aided by a group of her father's henchmen whom he left behind as a parting gift for his daughter. As if she had been waiting for just such a deliverance, the mistress of Manderlay, known only as "Mam" and played by Lauren Bacall, is dying in bed, but before she passes away entrusts Grace with a personalized slave-owner's manual called "Mam's Law."
Grace dips into the pages and is, at the same time, horrified and fascinated by the details of the treatment of slaves and the way Mam had categorized them by racial/stereotypical character traits, such as "Pleasin' Nigger" and "Talky Nigger."
If Grace was a victim of exploitation in Dogville, it's payback time in Manderlay as she sets about dictating the methods and virtues of democratic freedom to ex-slaves and their owners. In one instance, she even makes the whites -- with blackened faces -- serve meals to their former servants. She bungles it badly, since she has forgotten to take into account what decades of submission and enforced manual labor can do to a community's mentality: They get used to it.
Besides, Grace can't tell her charges apart (and is told, with cool irony, "We must all look the same to you"), nor can she rid her mind of erotic fantasies of virile black men.
Specifically, she's interested in Timothy (Isaach De Bankole), who had been listed in "Mam's Law" as "Proudly Slave" and whose exotic African accent, straight back and silent bearing poses a stark and alluring contrast to the rest of the ex-slave populace. Eventually, Grace's fantasies come true (on Mam's bed, no less), but the outcome and consequences turn out to damage her in a way she hadn't quite forseen.
As with "Dogville," the whole of "Manderlay" was shot inside a vast studio with chalk markings on the floor to designate the various props and sets ("Mam's Garden," "Slave's Quarters," etc.). Minimal lighting, the use of handheld digital cameras and von Trier's brutal editing are all familiar signs; he's certainly not aiming for aesthetics, but like his protagonist, only wants to make a point. Repeatedly. With the subtlety of a jackhammer.
The end credits roll to David Bowie's "Young Americans" and a background of photos that show the lynchings of blacks in the Deep South, the corpse of Martin Luther King, the body of Malcolm X on a stretcher and, finally, a black laborer moving his mop across the brow of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.
These credits are the worst part: It's like enduring a long, air-deprived hike on a high-altitude mountain pass, finally reaching a cabin and having the roof cave in.
So what if "Manderlay" is daring and different -- as Wilhelm so rightly says: "That sure ain't no excuse."