Von Trier Tackles Slavery; Still Hasn’t Visited the U.S.

013006 article sarris Von Trier Tackles Slavery;  Still Hasn’t Visited the U.S.Lars von Trier’s Manderlay, from his own screenplay, is the second installment of Mr. von Trier’s “American” trilogy following Dogville (2003), and is said to have been “inspired” by Jean Paulhan’s “Happiness Is Slavery” (the preface to Pauline Reage’s Story of O—purportedly a true story of Barbados slaves who unsuccessfully begged to be re-enslaved, then killed their former master and moved back into their old quarters). Mr. von Trier has transposed this perversely retrogressive fable to 1930’s Depression-era Alabama, and has plunged (with frequent use of the N-word) into a racial thicket that most liberal Hollywood angels have feared to enter.

As far as I know, Mr. von Trier has never visited the U.S. and reportedly refuses to fly anywhere. As comic writer-director-performer Albert Brooks asked with hilarious disbelief at a 1996 New York Film Critics’ award ceremony honoring both him and Mr. von Trier (Mr. Brooks showed up; Mr. von Trier didn’t): “THE DIRECTOR OF BREAKING THE WAVES DOESN’T FLY!? At least that was the excuse given by his publicist.”

Still, Mr. von Trier is entitled to express his opinion about the U.S. without having visited the place. I’m not sure that Sergio Leone ever visited us either before making his run of classic westerns. And, anyway, America has always been as much of an idea and an illusion as a place (vide Franz Kafka’s Amerika). Yet it’s not entirely clear what Mr. von Trier is trying to say either in Dogville or in Manderlay; it’s an oversimplification to dismiss him as a fashionably European denigrator of America. There seems to be more going on in his Thornton Wilder–esque, Our Town–ish canvases, underpopulated and underfurnished, in which his feelings and his fancies wrestle with each other through two of the weirdest movies ever made.

If anything, Manderlay is even weirder than Dogville, which had a much stronger and more satisfying storyline than its often-confusing sequel. Despite all the controversy it aroused, I never felt that Dogville was particularly anti-American, in that the Rocky Mountain township of Dogville never struck me as particularly American at all. (How could it be when an intellectual, played by Paul Bettany, had so much influence in it?) Adding up the pluses and minuses in the production, I wound up placing it on my 10-best list of English-language movies for its year. If you’ve never seen Dogville and are wondering whether or not to see Manderlay, I would recommend that you rent Dogville and decide whether you like it first: If you don’t like Dogville, you’ll probably hate Manderlay. And even if you like Dogville, you may not like Manderlay—but at least you’ll have some idea of what lies in store for you.

Grace, the female protagonist of Dogville, has returned in Manderlay after having given her mobster father permission to obliterate Dogville because its citizens betrayed and violated her while she was on the run and seeking refuge from the authorities. Though Manderlay takes place after Dogville, Nicole Kidman’s Grace is now being played by a younger, more strenuously earnest actress, Bryce Dallas Howard, while her gangster father, played by James Caan in Dogville, has now been replaced by Willem Dafoe.

On second thought, in view of these crucial casting changes, it may not be such a good idea to see Dogville first. Whatever you decide, the plantation of Manderlay is described in the press notes as lying on a lonely plain somewhere in the Deep South of the U.S.A. On the screen, three toy cars representing the conveyances bearing Grace, her gangster father and the rest of his gang are shown traversing a laid-down flat map of the U.S. They stop in the middle of Alabama, in Manderlay.

After a short lunch break, Grace, her father and his minions are preparing to drive away when a young black woman runs up to the car and knocks on Grace’s window, clearly in distress. Grace follows the girl through the now-open gates of Manderlay and finds a group of mostly black people living as if slavery hadn’t been abolished 70 years earlier.

Grace quickly disarms the rifle-toting white plantation owner with the help of her father’s goons and declares her intention not only to liberate these latter-day slaves, but also to make it up to them for all the injustices they’ve suffered at the hands of “people like her” (i.e., white people). Her father reluctantly leaves her there with his lawyer and a few of his henchmen, planning to return in a short time, after her grandiose plans to resurrect Manderlay inevitably fail. And this is pretty much the premise of the movie.

Dogville ended up being a Danish-Swedish-British-French-German-Dutch co-production, and this was reflected in its international cast, which included Ms. Kidman, Mr. Bettany, Mr. Caan, Ben Gazzara, Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, Jean-Marc Barr, Blair Brown, Philip Baker Hall, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Zeljko Ivanek, Udo Kier, Cleo King, Chloë Sevigny and Stellan Skarsgard. Mr. von Trier managed to attract a great many talented people to his project, which makes him either a magnetic artist or a consummate con man—or perhaps a bit of both.

Ms. Bacall, Mr. Ivanek, Mr. Kier, Ms. Sevigny and John Hurt as the narrator have returned from Dogville, though they tend to get lost in the interracial swirl of white on black. But is it Alabama in 1933, or Barbados and Africa much earlier, about which Mr. von Trier is thinking and agitating? In a very graphic black-on-white sex scene, the black seducer, Timothy (Isaach De Bankolé), places a white handkerchief over Grace’s face before he mounts her. In the production notes, when asked why she thought Timothy covered Grace’s face when they were having sex, Ms. Howard replied: “I saw it is a kind of Munsi [i.e., tribal African] tradition or something like that, but it could have been used as a device to allow Grace to be by herself at that moment as opposed to be with him, and that’s how she gets her sort of catharsis, because it is not an act that she is participating in with someone else, it’s almost by herself.”

Here in America, we’ve come a long way from the shock-wave-inducing pieties of Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), which won an Oscar for William Rose’s story and screenplay. Just 17 years before that, Jackie Robinson—playing himself in Alfred E. Green’s The Jackie Robinson Story—wasn’t allowed to kiss his wife (played by Ruby Dee) because Southern audiences would get too hot and bothered if they saw black people kissing onscreen, even if they were playing husband and wife.

The trouble with Manderlay is that there’s no semblance of the white world surrounding the plantation—and, oddly, most of the black actors are British. Even Danny Glover, the only African-American Hollywood “name” in the cast, is quoted in the production notes as saying that when he first read the script for Manderlay, he had issues with it. Asked what kind of issues, he replied: “I didn’t respond to it. When I read a script I try to see my myself as a character within the story and also I try to gauge the audience’s response, particularly in a story that deals so strongly with the issue of slavery and its aftermath and has very stereotypical characters. Because I had these problems, initially I turned it down. Then after telling that to Vibeke Windelev, Mr. von Trier’s agent, I read the script again … but I didn’t feel much different …. My issue, however, was not so much that the script was provocative, which it is. My issue was that it was told exclusively from a white perspective and that the images were very strong from that perspective.”

Though he eventually accepted the sensitive part of Wilhelm, the house slave who assigns written roles to the field slaves in order to enable them to endure their vile servitude, Mr. Glover’s misgivings remained. In the production notes, when asked if he felt he was going out on a limb playing such an Uncle Tom–like character, he replied simply, “Oh yeah, I do.” Then, when asked if he saw a hero or a heroine in Manderlay, he answered: “I don’t think that there are any real heroes in the movie. No, I don’t think that at all.”

Grace’s clumsy attempts to bring democracy to the Manderlay plantation reach a dubious climax when the assembled slaves elect to punish an elderly woman who gobbled up all the food intended for a sick child, causing the child’s death from malnutrition. The penalty they vote for is death, which Grace herself administers with a pistol. This extreme demonstration of the unintended consequences of majority rule can be interpreted as an allegorical attack on President George W. Bush’s current troubles in bringing democracy to Iraq by force. But Mr. von Trier denies such an exclusive interpretation, partly because his overall cynicism about life and politics makes that too narrow a target. I agree with him—after all, Dogville was as much an attack on hypocritical intellectuals as it was an attack on any particular society. It may be that the director has overreached in Manderlay by trying to deal with racial conflicts in an excessively abstract manner. Since his chosen mise-en-scène is already dangerously abstract, he has piled on too many layers of disbelief for an audience to overcome. It’s not entirely Ms. Howard’s fault that her Grace projects little of the dramatic force and carnal vitality of Ms. Kidman’s: Mr. von Trier gave Ms. Kidman much more to work with in the way of emotional decisiveness.

Buzz

Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) is being revived in a new 35-millimeter print at Film Forum (Jan. 27 to Feb. 2). If you’ve never seen it (and even if you have), drop everything to go see it. Ana Torrent gives perhaps the greatest child performance of all time as a little Spanish girl who becomes obsessed with Frankenstein’s monster after seeing the classic James Whale–Boris Karloff film with her older sister (Isabel Telleria) at a bring-your-own-chairs town-hall screening by the visiting cinema truck. Mr. Erice has captured the inbred morbidity of childhood fantasies as no other filmmaker ever has. The film is set in a tiny village on the desolate Castilian plain in 1940, a year after the end of the lastingly traumatic Spanish Civil War, which is never mentioned in the movie but casts its shadow nonetheless in the dark thoughts of its childhood inhabitants. (The title of the film, by the way, refers to the father’s beekeeping profession.)