Grace, a wide-eyed gangster's daughter brought up under the unique power assumptions of organized crime, accidentally stumbles opon a plantation that employs slaves – 70 years after the end of the Civil War. At first, she thinks she can just free the slaves with a few stock phrases about liberty and then drive off with her band of thugs to the next town; when she realizes it's not that simple, she stays behind under the guise of teaching the plantation residents, black and white, "how to be human beings."
And so begins Manderlay, Lars von Trier's latest school play version of American history, the follow-up to Dogville in a proposed trilogy titled "America the Beautiful." To call that title "ironic" wouldn't even begin to approach what Lars von Trier is all about. This isn't the kind of "irony" where you say you love Baywatch when you know it's bad. This is the "irony" of saying that black people would be better off as slaves, because you know it'll make people mad.
Von Trier is most often spoken of in the same breath as Dogme 95, the tongue-in-cheek "rescue action" he and Thomas Vinterberg embarked on last decade. Dogme produced about 7 noteworthy films before many wrote it off as a bad joke forumulated by drunks; this interpretation may not have stuck if von Trier himself hadn't been so eager to abandon his baby as soon as he got bored. After all, the "controversy" surrounding The Idiots' faux-retards fucking had barely burnt off before von Treier was on to making musicals. With Dogville, he amped things up even further, launching into one of the more elaborate schemes of formal gimmickery in recent memory: no sets, minimal props, mise en scene demarcated as chalk outlines. We can't imagine the allusion to a crime scene was accidental. But it seems like, for once, something has stuck – von Trier has stumbled upon a formula that he likes, and he works it on Manderlay, with a few crucial tweaks. The small, Northeastern village of Dogville is switched out for a Southern plantation called Manderlay; last time's black-backed soundstage replaced with a studio with all-white floors (all the better for mocking the American blank slate, my pretties); the last film's incandescent, 35-year old Oscar-winning superstar for this film's slight and boyish, early 20-something heiress to a family tradition of crap filmmkaing. Say it with me now: first time as tragedy, next time as farce. Manderlay is Dogville remade with (no pun intended) the shackles taken away. It's over the top in every way, and it dances dangerously close to self-parody. And it's going to make a lot of people angry, although probably mostly needlessly.
You might be able to slag Manderlay off as being anti-American, if it wasn't so anti-everything else as well - anti-woman, anti-sexist, anti-Black, anti-white, anti-Capitalist, anti-Socialist ... you get the picture. Even democracy is depicted as a fool's game, something entered into with good intentions that ends up being put to the service of legislating laughter and exterminating old ladies. It's a balls-out rendition of the same themes that von Trier has been playing with for all of his professional life. How do groups of people function when you limit their access to the real? What aspects of polite society do they try to mimic, where do they succeed and fail, how do they organize themselves, and what kinds of power dynamics emerge? And, as always, he chooses a woman as a window into all of this, one who could only be described as a victim to her own naivety. The same grand joke organizes this film, and everything else von Trier has ever done: what you think of as your lot in life is not a fixed construct, but the outcome of a series of games. Where you land on the power scale at the close of any individual jumble is entirely dependant on how well you play. Each successive film he makes, then, is something like an entire season of Survivor, except appropriately dressed-up for entry into the avant-garde.
This is naturally going to excite some of us, whilst others just won't care, and yet others will allow themselves to become enraged. Generally I think that a lot of the anger people are directing towards Manderlay is unwarranted; it could safely be called an unpalatable film, but it shouldn't be mistaken for a bad one. That said, I can't claim to be totally sure what the guy is trying to do here, and I think that uncertainty will stay with me, at least until seeing Wasington, the close of the series. On that matter, even Manderlay's detractors seem unwilling to write von Trier off completely.