Lars von Trier still has not visited the United States, yet he examines slavery and racism in “Manderlay,” Part 2 of his caustic fantasy trilogy about life in America.
Premiering Monday at the Cannes Film Festival, “Manderlay” picks up where “Dogville” left off, with the character originated by Nicole Kidman — now played by Bryce Dallas Howard — stumbling onto a plantation that time forgot, where slavery still operates in the 1930s.
As with “Dogville,” a Depression-era tale of a gangster’s daughter who exacts vicious vengeance on a town that debased her, “Manderlay” could be about his own Denmark or any other country, von Trier said. He chose to set his trilogy in the United States because its culture is so dominant, he said.
“America is kind of sitting on the world. There’s no question about it. It’s sitting on the world, and therefore, I’m making films that have to do with America, because America fills about 60 percent of my brain,” von Trier said at a Cannes news conference. “And I’m not very happy about that. ...
“Sixty percent of my life is America, so in fact, I am an American. But I can’t go there to vote. I can’t change anything because I’m from a small country, and we sit there and be American. So I am American, and that is why I make films about America. I don’t see this as so strange,” said von Trier, whose films include “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark,” which won top honors at Cannes in 2000.
“Manderlay” begins soon after the massacre that ends “Dogville.” Howard’s Grace is traveling with her father (Willem Dafoe, taking over the role from James Caan in “Dogville”) and his convoy of hoods as they drive south in search of new fortunes.
Making a pit stop outside the Manderlay plantation in Alabama, they discover that the residents still live as though slavery had not been abolished 70 years earlier. Blacks are chattel, tending cotton fields for their white masters.
Outraged, Grace intervenes, using her father’s henchmen to free the slaves and enforce democracy at the point of a gun, an oblique commentary about President Bush imposing American ideology overseas.
“We are a nation under the influence, and I think under the very bad influence, from America I would say right now; also because I think Mr. Bush is ... doing a lot of completely idiotic things,” von Trier said.
The former slaves are made proprietors of Manderlay, the whites subjugated as a lesson, forced in one scene to put on minstrel black face and serve food to their new masters.
The new community suffers famine, illness and other hardship, yet Grace guides Manderlay to utopian prosperity — for a time. Happy endings are not in von Trier’s playbook, and “Manderlay” winds up an indictment of a nation that tried to do the right thing by its former slaves, but with only half a heart.
Danny Glover, who plays a quietly sagacious patriarch among the ex-slaves, said “Manderlay” is set at a time when little progress had been made in improving conditions for blacks, whose lives remained much as they had been before emancipation.
“This did happen. It’s not as if we invented it,” Glover said. “It happened. So how do we address what happened? How do we address ways in which we can talk about it? And that’s what I thought the film provided us. A context to do that.”
The film follows the spartan design of “Dogville,” shot on a soundstage with sparse sets, lending it a live-theater quality reminiscent of such minimalist productions as Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
“Manderlay” features several returning cast members from “Dogville,” some in different roles, among them Lauren Bacall, Jeremy Davies and Chloe Sevigny. John Hurt also is back as the narrator.
Von Trier had hoped to shoot the entire trilogy with Kidman, who bowed out after Part 1, citing scheduling conflicts. He said he plans to take a break from the trilogy before making the closing installment, “Wasington,” while Howard was uncertain if she would be back as Grace in that film.
“I would amputate my toes to work with Lars again, and that’s not really an exaggeration, honestly,” said Howard, daughter of director Ron Howard. “If he does ‘Wasington’ and there’s a place for me in that film, then I would love to do that. But he needs to do what’s right for that movie, of course.”