'Manderlay': Look Away, Look Away

Bryce Dallas Howard and Isaach De Bankole in
Bryce Dallas Howard and Isaach De Bankole in "Manderlay," director Lars von Trier's cockeyed epic about race in the American South. (Ifc Films)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2006

It's rare that a film makes you want to reach through the screen, grab the omniscient narrator by the neck and wring the bloody life out of him.

But Lars von Trier's films are designed to provoke, and among the many provocations of "Manderlay," his epic about race and slavery on a plantation in Alabama, is the narrator -- for telling an ugly tale in the warm, singsong style of a gifted storyteller. It's a voice-over that could unfold the twists and turns of a Jane Austen period piece, a National Geographic documentary or the feel-good salute to a Great Man one might find playing on an endless 20-minute loop at the visitor center of some dead president's house.

The very tones of it suggest authority, and give the impression that the movie is based on an old novel, slightly overwritten, sad but knowing, leading to some inevitable moral wisdom about the world. The narrator is everywhere, especially in the heads of its central characters, leading them down the paths of love and malice, each to his or her desperate end. When the main character makes a critical mistake, von Trier's narrator says, in a charmingly archaic way, "She could but reproach herself in silence . . ."

But despite the leisurely trappings of a long-winded novel, despite the period costumes, the baroque music in the background and the stagy setting that looks like a noir design for Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," "Manderlay" is as tightly controlled as a modern authoritarian state. It is a polemic dressed up as a simple piece of storytelling. As you make your way through the two hours plus of "Manderlay's" pure nihilism, the first thing you must remember -- and ultimately it's a redemptive feeling -- is that it's all von Trier's invention. He wrote it, he filmed it, and ultimately the incredibly bleak view of the movie is his prison, not ours.

The film, set in 1933, tells the story of a plantation that time forgot, a lost little world called "Manderlay" that somehow missed news of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Cotton is still king, attended to by black minions, ruled over by cruel white masters. And then Grace arrives. She is the daughter of a gangster, carrying with her the unlikely burden of a good and unspoiled heart. So she borrows a few of her father's gun-toting thugs and settles in at Manderlay, on her own little Peace Corps mission to right the wrong of America's great shame and Manderlay's ongoing oppression. She is determined to bring the good news of freedom and democracy to Manderlay, but everything goes wrong.

No ironic possibility is lost. The good girl's benevolence is maintained through force of brute firepower; the enslaved blacks don't particularly want to be free; democratic initiatives lead to violent and tragic results; internecine conflicts rage. All standard cliches of the do-gooder drama are mustered to the fields of Manderlay. Grace, played with maddening blankness by Bryce Dallas Howard, inevitably falls for the strong, noble-savage Timothy (Isaach De Bankole); her good intentions always, inexorably, lead to unforeseen tragic consequences; and eventually she is corrupted by the very system she is trying to change.

Any impression left by that epic-sounding voice-over that this is a real historical drama about a real chapter in American history dissolves into parody when Grace apes the feel-good language of pop empowerment: "These are for you," she tells a young man, offering him art supplies, fully convinced that she's about to create the next Frederick Douglass. "Because we believe in you. Now run along and paint your fantastic pictures, and never mind those closed-minded folks who think they know what art is meant to look like . . . " But, oops, she got the poor boy mixed up with another young man, because all black people look alike.

This isn't America, or Alabama, and those black characters aren't real African Americans any more than the white characters are real people. It's a relentlessly dark, nasty and cruel vision of a place von Trier calls America, invented by a filmmaker who has never been to the United States and is channeling only the most uncompromising extremes of the great argument about slavery and guilt and integration. There is, certainly, plenty of accidental truth to it -- it's hard to overstate the ugliness at the core of America's race problem -- but it is, ultimately, a story, told by a director who wants to stand outside the problem, diagnose it as terminal and tar any opinion to the contrary as hopelessly naive or sentimental.

Even the basic look of the film -- it was filmed on a stage with every shot set against an inky backdrop -- underscores the filmmaker's position as master manipulator, in a laboratory, looking down at his mice running through his maze.

Von Trier has tapped not into America's obsession, but its exhaustion with race, the gloomy sense that the conversation has gone nowhere, that it has all become sunk in a morass of hypocrisy. But von Trier takes that understandable sense of mutual frustration and pumps it up into something far different. In the weird ethical house of mirrors that von Trier creates, naive good intentions about race are more evil than overt oppression, and those who fall short of the mark in an effort to do good are more culpable than those who simply, brutally, violently oppress.

But in his effort to indict America on the race issue, he shows his cards: It's humanity he hates, and if that's true, then America is no more guilty than, say, his native Denmark. Polemics unleavened by real grace (not the fictive Grace of this movie) often end in this logical corner: The problem is so bad, the players so guilty, the situation so hopeless, why bother? When the film ends, just as his "Dogville" did (he's working a trilogy about America) with a Michael Moore-esque sequence of lynching and war photographs further indicting the country, even die-hard socialists, anti-imperialists and other proud lefties will just laugh. Von Trier has successfully mapped the absurdist limit of a necessary and important critique of America.

Premiered in 2005, "Manderlay" is no doubt also an allegory of American foreign policy, about the basic arrogance of our meddling efforts to remake the world as comfortable and capitalist democracy. But a 1992 "Seinfeld" episode sums up the dangers von Trier tries to limn better and more succinctly. Jerry and the gang are planning an intervention, to confront a friend about his drug use. Then Kramer bursts through the door and, with his usual bad habit of telling the truth at the most opportune time, announces that he has arrived for the "interference."

Intervention or interference? Von Trier has his answer. More subtle and honest people won't find it so easy to decide, whether the question is race or international politics.

Manderlay (139 minutes, at AMC Loews Dupont) is not rated. It contain strong language, racial epithets, nudity and sex.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company