Saturday, 18 July 2015

Manderlay - Lars von Trier - 2005

The sequel to Lars Von Trier’s controversial Dogville and his second film to adopt Bertolt Brecht’s techniques for distancing the audience, Manderlay continues the director’s critical probing of American society, focusing this time on the dangerously polemic subject of race relations. Fleeing the township of Dogville after the events of the last film, the heroine Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) fetches up outside the imposing estate of Manderlay in the Deep South where she is shocked to discover that slavery is still enforced and impulsively decides to stay and enforce its long overdue emancipation. From here the film meanders forwards at an inevitably plodding pace with the mellifluous voice of John Hurt once again turning the mundane into the absurdly poetical as the new life of Manderlay unfolds over the seasons and Grace slowly discovers the consequences of her actions. In this context Von Trier seems to be using Grace’s character to comment on the naive attitudes of white people who sweep into an oppressive environment and impose their interpretation of 'freedom' on the inhabitants with little or no understanding of the people they believe they are saving. Grace’s intentions are certainly honourable in the beginning but Von Trier finds little blackly comic moments where she cannot tell two of the former slaves apart, or begins delivering patronising lectures on what it means to be free, to suggest that in her own way, Grace is just as ignorant and racist as the slave owners that she has overthrown. When her attitudes are further complicated by a growing sexual attraction for one of the former slaves, Von Trier provokes Grace, and through her the audience, to question whether her quest to improve the lives around her has any higher motivation at all or whether at heart everything we do is driven by baser desires. Howard is magnificent in the role, possibly even better than Kidman was in Dogville, investing wholeheartedly in Von Trier’s process to make Grace’s personal journey an intense and occasionally disturbing experience that adds another level to the social issues at stake. Von Trier's depiction of the black slaves that Grace frees is even more complicated and will make difficult viewing for anyone with a rigid concept of the meaning of freedom. The idea that instant freedom, although a noble ideal, does not on a practical level make a man’s life better but can make it at best more complicated and on many levels far worse, is upsetting for anyone to consider, but by obliging his audience to watch the slow disintegration of life at Manderlay under Grace’s care, Von Trier challenges us to consider these alternatives. Continuing the Brechtian production style he boldly adopted for Dogville and creating the whole estate on a wooden soundstage with only props, furniture and tape marks on the floor, Von Trier does not allow anything to distract visually from the characters and the dialogue and so however provocative and uncomfortable his ideas maybe, there is no escape and Manderlay succeeds in raising questions about race relations that few films have before or since.

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