Lars von Trier returns to Dogville’s chalk-outlined stage with Manderlay, the second act of his “America” trilogy in which martyr-turned-righteous avenger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, somewhat more soft and childish than predecessor Nicole Kidman) discovers that slavery still exists, 70 years after its abolition, on the titular 1933 Alabama plantation. Well-intentioned but wholly ignorant of the situation she finds herself in, Grace – with the help of her gangster father’s (Willem Defoe) hoods – flips the plantation’s race relations upside down, granting freedom and ownership of the land to sagacious Wilhelm (Danny Glover) and his African-American brethren, while putting the Caucasian family of now-deceased plantation matriarch Mam (Lauren Bacall) in the former slaves’ charge. Thoughtfully delving into his racially charged subject matter, von Trier astutely dramatizes the way indentured servitude – by nurturing feelings of superiority in the perpetrators, and low self-worth in the victims – becomes a self-generating phenomena not easily rectified by abolishment. Grace’s liberal guilt-inspired goodness, the slaves’ desire for comfort and safety, and the intolerant assumptions and stereotypes held by both whites and blacks are all laid bare by Manderlay (inspired by Jean Paulhan's preface to Pauline Reage's The Story of O entitled “Happiness in Slavery”). But unlike with his prior effort, the Danish provocateur regularly opts for pedantic exposition as a means of getting across his message. And when coupled with his general disinterest in exploiting the dramatic possibilities of his (already tiresome) Brechtian mise-en-scene, as well as his frustrating desire to approach American life theoretically rather than emotionally (his “characters” mere vessels for different points of view), von Trier’s latest winds up becoming a victim of its own coolly artificial aesthetic.
(2005 New York Film Festival)