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Out of the frying pan into the fire
A region 2 DVD review of MANDERLAY by Lord Summerisle
 

This review contains a major spoiler, which is indicated in advance for those who have not yet seen the film.

 

2003 saw the release of Lars von Trier's eagerly awaited follow up to Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville. The first part in his 'U.S.A – Land of Opportunities' trilogy, it showed a groundbreaking minimalist use of film form, not seen outside of avant-garde Brechtian cinema, as well as his trademark female protagonist, played by his biggest star yet, Nicole Kidman. There was a great amount of critical noise surrounding this picture at the time of its release, not in any small part due to the fact that this crazy Dane had managed to snag a Hollywood sweetheart for his lead role. The less cynical of us may prefer to think it was because of his reputation as one of independent film's most creative and challenging auteurs.

What is of no doubt is that Dogville, as did The Idiots (1998) before it, has reinvented the wheel. Lars had done it again, dissected the technique of film and reassembled it as his own. There were elements of the Dogme 95 manifesto that The Idiots adhered to so religiously; handheld camera, breaking the 180 degree rule (line of action), jump cutting etc, as was also the case with Dancer in the Dark. But what Dogville did was take this a step further. Here you are watching the characters, the acting, solely. Every aspect of Dogville's sparse layout is constructed to maximise exposure of the characters.

All of this has to be said in order to lay foundation for a decent analysis of Manderlay (2005), as indeed one needs to have experienced Dogville in order to get the most out of its sequel.

Both films are allegories for modern America and its politics as well as a dramatised interpretation of early 20th century regional America. Dogville's poor small town represents a herd mentality, with the liberal leanings of Tom eventually quashed by his need for community, whereas Manderlay is set in a more historically specific place and time, Alabama, post slave abolishment. Here the coloured folk of the village, still under slave conditions, are set free, although have a hard time adjusting to their freedom.

What ties the two films together is our trilogy protagonist and backbone to its stories, Grace. A slave to the people of Dogville in the first film, her role is reversed in Manderlay, as she takes on the position of Liberator after resting on the doorstep of the village with her father's convoy of gangsters, on their way home. Immediately comparisons to recent U.S. politics can be seen in this 'liberation', which will be discussed later. I feel although this is the barest of synopses this article is meant for those already familiar with these films, so it should suffice, to make room for the real discussion points of such great work.

Von Trier uses Grace as a multi-purpose tool. She is a catalyst for the communities she comes into contact with in both movies, she is von Trier himself; an outsider to foreign ways, and she is a growing and very human character. It is her journey that the audience invests in, and be it allegorically or humanistically, she is who we must identify with in order for these films to work. von Trier has had much practice in creating a believable and sympathetic leading lady as his last three films previous to the trilogy concerned central female characters. With Dogville he put this experience to great effect, and Kidman's performance is arguably the best of her career (and definitely the most vulnerable). So the first question I ask of Manderlay, a film that in the same way to its predecessor relies so strongly on its characters, is; with the absence of Kidman how does the character of Grace hold up?

To answer this we must look at Nicole's successor, Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of celebrated gingernut actor and prolific director/producer Ron (The Da Vinci Code) Howard. Yes, this put me off her too, to start with. Also her acting history doesn't look too impressive, with M. Night Shyamalan's The Village (2004) the only major credit to her name. Any doubt was dispelled however in five minutes of her performance. It is after establishment of the townsfolk of Dogville when Grace makes her first appearance. What is different in Manderlay's beginning sequence is the immediate inclusion of our protagonist. It is clear Howard plays a different Grace, a younger Grace, though in no way an immature or weak Grace. This is a person who has been reborn from her past experience and is ready to use her new power for forces much better than her father's. This second Grace is someone who has developed from Dogville, though still bears a good willed naivety, meekly channelled by Howard. Her father in Manderlay has also changed, from James Caan to Willem Dafoe. A new father for a new daughter, and the pair spark wonderfully in the few scenes they share, early in the film.

There are a good deal of familiar faces from Dogville here too, although morphed into different roles. For example Lauren Bacall returns as the character of Mam, Chloe Sevigny and Jeremy Davies have to make do with minor roles, whereas Trier regulars Udo Kier and Jean-Marc Barr have larger ones as Grace's father's gangsters assigned to help enforce her new laws. All of these performances are as competent as ever, but the one supporting role that really shines through is that of Danny Glover. He plays Wilhelm, Mam's old and loyal slave, with a sensitivity it would seem von Trier can bring out of any Hollywood standard. For a director famed for his disliking of actors, Lars von Trier gets the most naturalistic performances from his cast since John Cassevetes. Of course one could argue a realism to his work. Although the depths of such an argument are not suited for this review, I will just comment that personally I believe there to be a truth to these films just as honest as his movies of the Dogme era, despite their theatrical mise-en-scene.

Both Glover and Howard, together with the writing and structure of this picture, bring a more solid and accessible story to the screen than that of Dogville, which is surprising considering the lesser known lead. Saying this I take nothing away from the original, which has the raw vitality of something new and exciting, as is Trier's way. Unfortunately this freshness in not so clear in the sequel, for obvious reasons. The style and technique remains from Dogville, with the odd change. Manderlay is a darker picture aesthetically, as there is a constant black backdrop without the white backgrounds that connoted daytime in Dogville. This creates an altogether more claustrophobic atmosphere, even though the set is quite a bit larger. It is also interesting that while there is a darker mise-en-scene in Manderlay there is a lighter tone to much of the film. There are a few humorous scenes and much of the score has optimism, although I am suspicious that this is meant with a tinge of irony, in the same way as John Hurt's voice over (one constant throughout the trilogy I would expect).

Once again the format for the picture is High Definition video, and the quality is very close to film. The problem with contrast (heightened by such basic lighting and set) has been well kept in check by Anthony Dodd Mandle, Trier's long time DP. One must be especially thankful of this, as contrast plays such a large role in the aesthetics of the film; the juxtaposition between white and dark skins a paradigm for much of Manderlay's meaning.

The following paragraph reveals a key plot develoment – click here to bypass

Although it is all too easy to get caught up in obvious and immediate meaning such as racism and class struggle that adorn this sequel, it is important to keep in mind the film as a second act to a three part whole. As previously mentioned, Grace is in many ways von Trier himself, on a journey throughout these alien lands, and the development of the character shows Trier's ever conflicting opinions on American society and politics. It is a shallow critic who looks upon this film as nothing but a criticism of America. From Grace it shows a misplaced, though well intentioned, psyche, still young and naïve, yet learning. Grace through her troubles grows as a person, as America grows as a country. She makes mistakes and learns from them. Idealism becomes pragmatism with the seemingly necessary death of Old Wilma. By the end of Manderlay she knows not to force 'liberation' (her ideal) on a community, and this is where the importance lies. Lars von Trier is saying that after Iraq Bush should learn from his mistakes and not provoke a people, even a world, to rise up against him as the people of Manderlay did to Grace.

It would be wrong to directly compare Manderlay to its predecessor, and would belittle von Trier's vision to do so, although inevitably comparisons will be made. I think it is clear that the crew have learnt some practical lessons in this format since Dogville, as the sets and lighting are used to greater effect on occasion and CGI is used sparingly and is flawless in its suitability.

Manderlay stands on its own two feet as another Lars von Trier masterpiece, although is really just a part of an as yet incomplete whole.

sound and vision

Shot on High-Def but framed once again 2.35:1, the transfer here is of a very high order, with crisp detail and accurate colour reproduction (the brownish hues were how the film played on the cinema screen). The contrast is excellent, with the large areas of background black rendered perfectly without sacrificing any foreground detail. Shadow detail is very good. There are some minor compression artefacts visible on the top shots, but on the whole this is a very good transfer.

Both stereo 2.0 and surround 5.1 tracks are available. The 5.1 track is a little fuller than the stereo track – seperation is good on both, but little use is made of the rears on the surround track. Clarity is very good, given the occasional limitations imposed by the sound stage.

extra features

This DVD, as with the UK release of Dogville, is not laden with extras, although it does boast a commentary with cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle and Lars von Trier himself. It is an informative feature with Dodd Mantle making many of the articulate statements. This is because English is not the first language of the director and the British Mantle, a long time collaborator with Trier, helps him along with translating some observations. He also acts as an interviewer and his relationship with Lars is instrumental in probing him for information he may not have given if left to his own devices. Mantle, as one would expect, is mostly concerned with the technical aspects of production. There is much talk of lighting and camera use, how the HD video coped with the minimalist aesthetic etc. Von Trier is impressively self critical and there is no trace of the ego more mainstream directors often impress upon commentaries. He admits lessons learnt from Dogville, although thinks that the editing may have been too narrative driven, and could have done with more space for the characters to breathe. There is a humanistic debate that skirts on the fringes of being extremely interesting; ideas on Grace's primitive sexual wants are contrasted against her ideological needs, but much of this is lost in Trier's caginess or maybe protectiveness to the films ambiguity. All in all though, it is a worthwhile addition to the release, and one that would have improved Dogville's.

The second extra is a 40 minute making of documentary entitled, The Road to Manderlay. Consisting of interviews and on-set and behind-the-scenes footage, it is a good companion piece to the commentary, giving insight into what a von Trier set can be like, and what it's like to work with him and his untraditional techniques.

Last on the special features is the usual bit of fluff to bulk the product out; a theatrical trailer. This unremarkable trailer hints at the main theme of the movie without giving too much away. I'm not really a trailer man though, so perhaps not best suited to comment on its shortcomings, but I am of the school of thought that believes such an extra lends little to the attraction of the overall package.

summary

A mesmerising and worthy successor to Dogville, Manderlay ticks all the boxes expected of the Danish maestro, and leaves us salivating with anticipation over the final instalment of his trilogy. With regards to the extras, not a dazzling array of features, but the commentary and featurette are good enough to warrant a thumbs up. I suppose it is what one must expect when dealing with one of world cinema's most enigmatic and inspired characters.

Manderlay

Denmark / Sweden / Nethelands / France / Germany / UK 2005
109 mins
director
Lars von Trier
starring .
Bryce Dallas Howard
Isaach De Bankolé
Danny Glover
Willem Dafoe
Jeremy Davies
Lauren Bacall
Jean-Marc Barr
Udo Kier

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
English
extras

Director and cinematographer commentary

Making-of documentary
Trailer
distributor
Metrodome
release date
3 July 2006
review posted
17 June 2006

related reviews
Dancer in the Dark
Dogville
The Boss of it All
Antichrist

See all of Lord Summerisle's reviews