Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 27, 2005 6:13 pm 
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Lars von Trier: Manderlay (Denmark/Sweden/France 2005). 139 minutes. An IFC Films release. Shown at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, September 30, October 1 2005.

More provocation with a sharper focus

If you found Dogville dreary you may like Manderlay no better, but I at least was relieved to find it an hour shorter. It's sharper and more specific in its topics too. There's no great reason to consider that a letdown. This one arguably is more focused on ideas and less on personalities; and that's as it should be, because von Trier is the quintessential polemical filmmaker. Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) insists on being let off by her father at a southern cotton plantation where slavery still prevails. The film is based upon an account in the preface to A Story of O about a group of slaves on Barbados who refused to be set free. The boss lady, Mam (Lauren Bacall), is dying and Grace takes over to set things right -- or so she thinks; her project to democratize the slaves goes rapidly downhill. Danny Glover, who plays Wilhelm (pronounced "Willim"), the old slave closest to boss lady Mam, has commented that the script views matters only from a white man's point of view, and von Trier has agreed that this is true. It was hard to get black Americans to act in the film because the Negroes in it are not admirable -- no Denzel Washington hero types. However, black audience members were among the most enthusiastic at the New York Film Festival press screening. In the premise there is of course a certain implication that in the US blacks have never ceased to be slaves.

Von Trier argued in an interview that after emancipation blacks were unwilling to take up the struggle to establish a place in society, but he also acknowledged that all the blame for oppression rests on white people. He had this interesting comment to make: "Every major town or city in the USA with respect for itself has a Holocaust museum, but none has a museum of the racial oppression that took place within the USA itself." A strong point. But it's said von Trier has never been to the States. If he wants to provoke us -- and little could be more provocative than the suggestion that oppressed people welcome their oppression -- maybe he should pay us a visit. What makes Trier's efforts turgid and overwrought, despite his originality and ability to draw actors into new trials and exploits, is that his dramas smell of the lamp. There's too little everyday reality in them and too much of the abstract and theoretical, the thought up in empty studio and stuffy study.

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