26 May 2006

We Don't Live Here Anymore

Manderlay - dir. Lars von Trier - 2005 - Denmark

Just announced for an August 8th DVD release by IFC Films, Lars von Trier's follow-up to Dogville (I can't really say the second installment of the USA: Land of Oppertunities Trilogy, as the final part, Wasington, may never show its face) reunites us with Grace, our little American idealist, en route with her gangster father, shortly after leaving (and destroying) the town of Dogville. In Manderlay, Grace appears to have gained in self-assurance what she has decreased in age (Bryce Dallas Howard is fourteen years younger than Nicole Kidman). The gangsters discover the town of Manderlay, a town that has ignored the abolition of slavery nearly seventy years prior. The owner of the plantation (Lauren Bacall) dies, and it is therefore Grace's job to structure equality in terms of the slaves and plantation family members. Of course, as Dogville has shown us, perhaps the bright shining optimism of young Grace might be thwarted by the final chapter of our tale.

On its own, Manderlay is just as brilliant as Dogville, a seering criticism of American dreams, yet as most critics have pointed out, it suffers from familiarity. The continuity problems with the casting of Grace never really seems out of place, in fact Howard's performance (not negatively) has given me more of an appreciation for Kidman's in Dogville. Initially, I found Kidman to be noticeably dazed and confused, often unsure of what she's doing in the town, let alone the film. The casting of Nicole Kidman, too, added another dimension to Dogville, as not simply the destruction of a woman, or idealism itself, but of the personification of glamour and Hollywood. You can't help but imagine von Trier snickering during the montage where the men of Dogville take full, sexual advantage of the shackled Kidman. The casting of Bryce Dallas Howard, however, does not work in such a way. Her Grace is assured, forceful, and blindly convinced and impressed of her own philanthropy. As I've read, Howard's knowledge and appreciation of the work of von Trier were helpful in getting her the part, so it comes as no surprise that she looks as if she knows exactly what she's doing here. And while this would make the claim for Howard's performance to be "stronger" than Kidman's, they both work beautifully within the context of each film. Grace "learned a lesson" in Dogville, which, of course, sets her up for a greater thwarting that I mentioned earlier.

Manderlay actually calls for a greater appreciation for its predecessor. Perhaps we didn't realize that a lot of the awe of Dogville came from the fresh manipulation of our senses. Without sets, von Trier forced us to look differently, in a way many of us haven't, at his film. It's meta to the fullest degree, completely capturing in cinema terms the idea of the thin (or non-existent, here) walls of small towns. Manderlay is filmed similarly, the plantation is designed the same way; there's an upstairs to Bacall's house sans walls, and there's a well. That's about it for set design. What worked so brilliantly in Dogville seems to have become an expectation from the audience, an expectation that removes the awe that we had when approaching Dogville. On its own, though, Manderlay works quite wonderfully. The ideas presented are frightening and button-pushing, in the best sense. I found the depiction of Grace's raging sexuality, teemed with her possible racism, to be especially wonderful. Often times we find warmth in familiarity, for why else would genre films still exist? When approaching a Lars von Trier film, however, this is not the case. Despite my feelings on his prior work, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, The Idiots, and Dogville all stand proud in the fact that your perception of film is being compromised. While Manderlay offers up a boat-load of controversial food for thought, it may never be regarded as highly as Dogville for the simple fact that we knew how to read it.


Eric Dienstfrey said...

Dogville was pretty good, but I still think it's a step down from his last trilogy. I did like it's use of symbolism though, I thought that was pretty brilliant.

Looking forward to Manderlay.

reassurance said...

I disagree -- at this point, I think Dogville is von Trier's masterpiece. His prior films all have a certain.... visage that screams false. In Dogville, he finally removed such phony pretenses to show his true colors.

Eric Dienstfrey said...

I'm not sure I entirely agree. I found all of his films to scream false in some way and I think Dogville's sadism is just as problematic as his earlier films. I might be one of the few people who think The Idiots is one of his best films, because he directly addresses the false issue in a way that cuts his Dogme movement as well. The Five Obstructions does something similar because he as a "seeking the truth" filmmaker is both the subject and the object.

I used to also think Breaking the Waves took the cake as for his destruction (not-deconstruction) of the film, with that bell shot at the end. It seems to me that von Trier enjoys inviting people to watch him paint a glorious picture, and then at the end, after everyone is moved by it, he takes a knife and destroys the painting for sadistic reasons, and I kind of like this. The bell shot at the end of Waves is a wonderful way to destroy the film, and I think David Bowie at the end of Dogville is just as amazing.

Back to the topic, the main problem I had with Dogville (albeit a small problem) was the staging/set. When I heard about it, I was excited about what he would do with it, and in my opinion he didn't go far enough... as if he threw away rib bones when they still have lots of meat on them. But I did like his playful use of symbolism with the dolls that Kidman so desperately wants to own, and how those later parallel living creatures (when the mob comes) and how this is all done on a fully signified set.

I also have a sweet spot for Zentropa. After 9/11, so many of my college friends became these naive opinionated idiots, and the film was bizarely optimistic in that it shows that they will all drown in their idiocy.

Eric Dienstfrey said...

that should have been an email...