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‘Manderlay’ is another Lars von Trier drag

The Dutch director has endlessly dull things to say about being American
/ Source: The Associated Press

To get riled up by Lars von Trier’s “Manderlay” would be to validate him. It would suggest that he has a point, and that it’s lucid, and that he has argued it convincingly.

With the second film in his trilogy indicting America — a country the Danish writer-director still has not been to and never intends to visit — he seems to be saying something about race relations, but what? That blacks still function essentially as slaves and that whites remain intent on keeping it that way?

Certainly his ideas cannot be that overly simplistic (and fundamentally misguided) and yet they feel as abstract as the film’s setting: a sparse, open soundstage with just a few pieces of furniture and outlines on the floor in place of sets, just like its predecessor, 2004’s “Dogville.”

Words like “The Mansion,” “The Bathhouse” and “Old Lady’s Garden,” written on the ground in stenciled capital letters, represent the film’s location: an Alabama plantation in the 1930s. Characters knock on imaginary doors, then enter accompanied by the sound effect of creaking open and shut.

The conceit is just as pretentious as it was in “Dogville” — and the pacing is just as insufferably draggy — as “Manderlay” makes its way through eight chapters, united once again by the lull of John Hurt’s half-soothing, half-mocking narration.

As he’s proven in his previous films like “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark,” von Trier isn’t afraid to expose the ugliest elements of human nature, the depravity that can lie hidden within us. That’s one of the most exciting things about him as a filmmaker, and one of the most maddening. Clearly he’s capable of using his creative powers to startlingly focused effect. He just doesn’t do it all the time.

Here, the fugitive Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard taking over for Nicole Kidman) has left the violent Rocky Mountain setting of “Dogville” and is on the run with her gangster father (Willem Dafoe taking over for James Caan) and his caravan of thugs.

Once they stop in the middle of Alabama (literally, their cars stop on a giant floor map of the United States in a spot where it says “Alabama”) Grace feels compelled to remain at the Manderlay plantation, where slavery strangely still thrives 70 years after abolition, to free these people and right the wrongs that have been perpetrated against them.

Her inspiration is ... who knows? White guilt, or a sudden surge of magnanimity, perhaps. There’s little substantive continuity from the first film — this Grace bears no resemblance to Kidman’s incarnation of her — so her actions, abrupt and sweeping, seem to come out of nowhere.

Following the death of the plantation’s owner (Lauren Bacall, of all people) and with the reluctant help of the head slave, Wilhelm (Danny Glover), Grace tries to teach these people that they have rights and freedoms. She walks them through the minutiae of democracy (C-SPAN can be more entertaining) and while they’re busy voting on what time they think it is, everyone neglects to plant the cotton, thereby thrusting the plantation into economic turmoil.

Without sitting through all of “Manderlay,” you see where this is headed. In such a stressful situation, even the wide-eyed, idealistic Grace cannot remain pure of thought and deed.

Howard, it should be said, does show great subtlety and strength in just her second leading role, following M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village.” It’s a part that requires her to function as both victim and victimizer, and her evolution is a mesmerizing thing to watch, even in a painfully graphic sex scene with powerful former slave played by Isaach De Bankole.

There’s nothing subtle, though, about the film’s conclusion. Just as he did in “Dogville,” von Trier plays David Bowie’s “Young Americans” over a montage of photos during the closing credits. Instead of images of Americans living in squalor, this time he’s strung together pictures of Klan rallies, race riots and Martin Luther King Jr., followed by shots of the World Trade Center and a gurney awaiting a prisoner who’s been sentenced to the death penalty.

After all that, you’ll walk away wondering, what is this person trying to say? Von Trier himself may not even have the answer.