Manderlay - Lars von Trier - Denmark 2005 Bryce Howard
Viewed: 6 03 06 Cine Centre Shaftsbury Avenue London: afternoon screening, ticket price £6-50
The opening sequence comprised of digitally mastered shots plots the course of a small convoy of cars as it crosses a schematic political map of the USA, out of Texas and into the South. This convoy comes to a halt in the blackness of von Trier’s theatrically contrived studio space which contains the iconically and ironically named cotton plantation of Manderlay. As in the house of the same name in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, it is the past that permeates and controls the present of this eponymous foundation.
Lars von Trier(LvT) picks up Manderlay where Dogville left off. It’s still the Depression. It’s still the same characters in the limousines. But it is not Nicole Kidman who steps out at Manderlay but rather Bryce Dallas Howard. BDH now plays the role of Grace, naïve torch carrier for the white liberal conscience and the core values of rationality. Grace arrested by the spectacle of the public flogging of a black slave, decides to stay to impose on these people a new order for living.
For all its theatric devices, Dogville worked as film. The inherent tendency of melodrama to break up and degenerate into a soap opera parody of a self referential world was checked by LvT’s bold invention and the caliber of the players. The decision to use a bare stage with minimalist sets stripped of any props that did not have a function, intensified the affect of the actors. Seen against and pressed out of the encompassing and encircling off stage darkness their presence was magnified; whilst at the same time the ideas that they represented were proportional to the mechanics of setting: Grace wants shelter; Grace wants work; Grace wants to escape; Grace wants vengeance. These core propositions in the script were realisable within the embrace of the sparse sets. The tension between individual desire and the circuitry of the collective machine was tested amplified and resolved as drama. The relevance of individual desire and collective responsibility to wider philosophical ideas was implicit rather than explicit. The wider political and social implications of Dogville were subtext not text. The dynamics of the scripting, the intelligence of both Kidman’s playing of her lead role and the supportive ensemble playing, were elements drawn together by long hand held camera takes, producing a film that delivered a strong dramatic statement to serve a moral vision.
Manderlay in contrast fails to convince me that it is any thing more than a series of contrivances. The initial situation is a contrivance: Manderlay is presented as a plantation that some 70 years after abolition is still practicing outright slavery. The role of Grace as the kick-ass feminist reformer and the roles of the blacks as reluctant followers of the democratic path all follow from a script that seems to have been contrived as a heavy handed allegory on the dangers of enforcing compliance with a one dimensional definition of freedom. An allegory that fits the contemporary events in Iraq better than the situation of blacks in the US today. Grace wants the practice of democracy; Grace wants the practice of equal opportunities; Grace was social discrimination banned. Grace gets her way because she can enforce it by using her with superior force.
Like those seventeenth and eighteenth century dramas which had persona named for their character traits such a Coward, Rascal, Cheat, Hope etc, Manderlay’s characters are intentionally overdetermined by their inventor and not permitted behavioral deviations. LvT creates a mythic universe constrained in time and space by his sets but the filmic language he uses doesn’t serve to develop his mythic allegoric form, it works against it. His camera, set to an agitated drifting autofocus, constantly moving ducking diving bobbing weaving, deconstructs the mythic form. And in losing its mythic form the construct loses its tension; the film becomes a set of demands on the actors that they perform for the camera, that they go through the motions of playing their parts. The script instead of being a living thing dies in the camera and the film becomes an apparatus for transporting the actors from the beginning to the end of the script. A mechanical device.
This mechanicality is highlighted by the ritualised humiliating fuck that BDH has to bend into with the Cunning Black. As part of his antiromantic Hollywood crusade LvTs lead actresses usually have to get a bad fuck. In Dogville the tensions surrounding and permeating the space occupied by Kidman through the camera, make the bad fuck work. It feels part of the escalation of events in Dogville. In Manderley the bad fuck is a deadly scripted device and mediated by what looks increasingly like clumsy and cack handed camera work on the part of LvT. The agitated restless hand held camera work makes Manderlay feel more like soap opera than melodrama. And whereas myth can be played melodramatically it doesn’t sit easily with soap form. And the drift towards soap is compounded by the performance of BDH who pouts beautifully in many and different ways and occasionally smiles but has little by way of nuance to offer. This may have been LvT’s reason for casting her(she has the haircut) as the architypic modern organised female lead, but as played and shot she becomes increasingly detached from the process of the film.
One questionable aspect of Dogville was the use of the Voice Over as a character/narrator. This Voice, played by John Hurt was written by LvT as a privileged text, privy to the inner states of mind of some of the players and able to see clearly what was happening and make succinct comments on the current situation in the film. This Voice, rounded to inform us of its intelligence and carefully modulated to insinuate itself into our good graces, was the device that set up the action. At times it threatened to subsume the action but in Dogville LvT avoided the danger of the Voice becoming overbearing. If Hurt’s Voice was occasionally overused in Dogville, in Manderlay the device becomes increasingly irksome and finally plasters over all the cracks in the film with a unitary layer of explanation. Where in Dogville the voice fills in, in Manderlay it fills out explains, rounds and signs off. Its not a layer, its a complete surface that exerts over the material an expressive supremacy.
Manderlay is a film that spins out of control. The constituent parts fail to interrelate or interpenetrate. Camera work acting scripting and mise en scene each pursue their own logic. But behind the facade of the film their lies the intensity of Lars von Trier. Manderlay for all its imperfections is intent that filmic expression should have a moral intent. And Manderlay is always a film made with intelligence and for this alone it is all the more worth seeing than most of the stuff on the screen at the moment.