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Manderlay probably has something in it to piss off just about everyone. Of course, Lars von Trier has already pissed off many people with Dogville who won’t bother to see this follow up. But for those who still want to hear von Trier’s message, they should come prepared to be offended.
Who will be offended? White liberals who see themselves as helping those less fortunate, African Americans who are seen as preferring to be victims rather than take responsibility for their lives, neo-cons who will see the obvious discounting of America’s attempt to spread democracy. White or black, liberal or conservative, von Trier has you in his sight.
Just as in Dogville, Manderlay focuses on the arrogance and hypocrisy that von Trier sees in
This film picks up where Dogville left off. In 1933, Grace, her father and a gaggle of gangsters have made it down to
Grace’s father reminds her of when she was a child and set free her caged bird only to find it dead outside the next morning. But Grace assumes that with her power (the gangsters) she can make a difference. At first, the slaves are reluctant to be free. As Wilhelm says, “As slaves we took supper at seven. When do free men eat?” But freedom is forced upon them by Grace. She knows what’s good for them and will teach them how to live.
As the change plays out, we soon discover that Grace has not foreseen the consequences of her actions. It seems like everything she does only makes things worse. Soon the plantation is on the brink of failure.
Some spoilers follow
In time Grace shows them “Mam’s Law,” the book that had ruled their lives. She sees it as a disgusting set of exploitive rules. Wilhelm (one of the former slaves) tells her, “I wrote Mam’s Law for the good of everyone. You’ve been reading it through the wrong spectacles.” He then goes on to explain to her why these things were for the benefit of all.
Eventually, the community realizes that it needs a new “Mam” and votes Grace into the role, even though she doesn’t want it.
Sometimes it seems that von Trier likes to play with the mechanics of filmmaking to see what he can come up with. (Cf., his work in developing the Dogme Manifesto or the games he played with Jørgen Leth in making The Five Obstructions.) This can make for innovative and creative films. This has the feel of him looking at how to make a sequel that mixes up the sequel formula.
Like Dogville, Manderlay is played out on an almost bare sound stage with minimal props and sets. It carries forward the themes from Dogville – especially the themes of arrogance and hypocrisy.
This gets back to the many ways this film can manage to offend everyone. The key focus on the film is on the kind of white liberal guilt that Grace manifests. If you remember Tom Edison in Dogville, you will readily recognize him in Grace here. She is the one in the community who knows better than everyone else how things should be. She is the one with the moral compass. (At least that’s how she sees herself.) She takes the blame for the oppression of these oppressed people, even though she has not been involved. From her mouth the whole attitude (which reflects very well the kind of white liberal guilt that we often hear from society’s do-gooders) sounds arrogant and ludicrous. But not only is it arrogant, we see in the film that it can also lead to great anger when those we seek to help turn the words back on us.
It is also a bit hypocritical, the film points out, for those who claim to be victims of oppression to opt to live in that role rather than take responsibility for their own lives. One of the points of Mam’s Law was that these people needed to be taken care of. Many of them knew the purpose of the Law, and rather than moving on to more productive lives, chose to continue in the easier, protected life of Manderlay’s slavery.
I expect those who will be most offended are those who think that it is
I’m one of those who look forward to von Trier’s films. I continue to think he has something to say. That doesn’t mean that we have to accept his ideas. Perhaps we get offended the most when we see ourselves clearly and hear the words we say and the ideas we support in new light that makes them seem trivial and wrongheaded. It is this way that von Trier skewers the viewer. It doesn’t necessarily invalidate our ideas, but it makes us try to justify to ourselves the ideas and ideals we hold dear. Perhaps then we can justify them to the world – maybe even to Lars von Trier.