Controversy may sell but it sure didn't do much for the box-office tallies of Death Of A President or Lars Von Trier's Dogville and Manderlay. Von Trier set out to expose the poisonous hypocrisies of The United States and the American people responded with a tidal wave of apathy. Dogville died a quick death at the American box-office but its 1.5 million dollar domestic gross positively dwarfed Manderlay's It's Pat-like gross of just under eighty thousand dollars.
After popularizing the heightened faux-naturalism of the Dogme movement Von Trier switched gears for Dogville and embraced an arch theatricality that takes the minimalism of early live television even further by eschewing all but the most rudimentary props and filming on a huge, nearly empty soundstage.
Much of the film's buzz consequently centered on its radical experimentation with cinematic form. Alas what was radical, new and risky in Dogville can't help but feel derivative here. A death-defying stunt never seems as impressive the second time it's performed. Stylistically, Von Trier no longer has the element of surprise but he's raised the stakes thematically and politically by turning his pitch-black wit and grim view of humanity on America's racial hypocrisy.
Bryce Dallas Howard takes over for Nicole Kidman in the all-important lead role of a young woman slowly driven mad by the unbearable gulf between how we see ourselves and how we actually are. In Dogville Kidman, like fellow sob sisters Joan Crawford, Hilary Swank and Julianne Moore, conveyed a paradoxical strength in suffering. Under that porcelain skin lie ice-water and the indomitable constitution of a championship racehorse. Anyone who can be married to Tom Cruise for a decade and emerge one of the biggest female movie stars in the world and one of the most respected actresses of her generation can clearly withstand the mercurial rages of Von Trier or Stanley Kubrick. Kidman and Von Trier were a match made in sado-masochistic heaven: he was Hitchcock to Kidman's ice-queen Grace Kelly, a cinematic sadist who'd found his perfect masochist in Kidman.
Howard however is made of much spacier stuff and her weakness and vulnerability in the lead throws off the film's balance. Kidman could clearly fend for herself but it's hard not to feel for Howard as an actress as Von Trier subjects her to a punishing gauntlet of emotional abuse and humiliation. Watching her performance here I was reminded of a passage in Michael Bamberger's book on Lady In The Water where Night broods that Howard is behaving on-set like a slightly ditsy young actress and not like a beatific fairy-tale heroine. Shyamalan had gone through the trouble of casting her as a magical sea nymph: the least she could do, Night and Bamberger seem to feel, is to behave like a magical sea nymph for the duration of filming. Of course it doesn't help that Howard and Kidman are separated by a decade and a half and a world of experience or that Howard is a relative novice compared to Oscar-winner Kidman
In Manderlay Howard's naïve idealist stumbles upon a plantation where slavery is still being practiced some seventy years after the Emancipation Proclamation. A horrified Howard gets her Abraham Lincoln on by freeing the slaves only to learn that the ex-slaves remain tethered to their old ways and view the earnest white woman in their midst with suspicion if not outright disdain.
As my colleague Scott Tobias pointed out in his review of Dogville Von Trier's "America" movies are less about the United States–a country he's famously never visited–than about the idea of the United States. Von Trier is operating on the level of allegory and metaphor and his film can be read an infinite number of ways.
From a leftist perspective Manderlay can be interpreted as a vicious satire of imperialism and nation-building and the idea that people who've only known fear, oppression and terror will magically turn into Junior Americans the minute they're handed a My First Democracy starter kit.
From a right-wing perspective Manderlay can be read as a scathing critique of the ineffectuality of do-gooder Liberalism, with its innate belief that the greed and ugliness endemic in the human character can be exorcised via sound governing and compassionate social welfare programs.
Manderlay flirts with a lot of provocative, compelling ideas. What does freedom and democracy mean if you don't have money or power? How can oppressed people be expected to fulfill the demands of citizenship in a true democracy? Manderlay introduces ample food for thought but doesn't always get around to satisfactorily dramatizing those ideas. Von Trier's script veers regularly into stiff didacticism while Howard lacks the chops and gravity to pull off an incredibly demanding role.
As Scott also pointed out in his Manderlay review Kidman/Howard's character doesn't make sense emotionally: she exited Dogville bruised, battered and cynical yet she magically reverted back to pristine, naïve innocence somewhere between the two films. Yet for all its shortcomings I found Manderlay nearly as powerful as Dogville and even more uncompromising. Von Trier remains a deceptively elegant filmmaker and maintains a grim, heady intensity from start to finish. On an intellectual level the film is resonant and compelling even at its most strident and shrill. People have complained about Von Trier's nihilism but it's an artist's job to hold up a mirror to society, not propose solutions to its social ills. Von Trier is an artist and a provocateur and a glorified carny and a con man and a shameless self-promoter. Just about the only thing he's not is a politician.
So I wasn't exactly surprised when Von Trier (SPOILER ALERT) ends the film with a photo montage documenting The United State's abysmal treatment of African-Americans set to David Bowie's "Young Americans". Then again considering Von Trier's reputation maybe we should just feel lucky that he didn't end the film with a freeze frame of himself sodomizing a porn star dressed as the Statue Of Liberty while setting an American flag on fire while a bald eagle masturbates furiously in the background.
Half the non-existent fun of movies like Manderlay lies in talking about the movie afterwards. Assuming you're among the dozen or so people who've seen this movie what do you think? Is it racist? Anti-American? Unfair? True? Untrue? An abomination? A masterpiece? I think Dogville and Manderlay are best viewed as a far-ranging American counter-mythology combating the cult of mom, the flag and apple pie with an unrelentingly grim dissection of our country's shortcomings. I for one very much hope that Von Trier gets around to finishing his American trilogy, even if I'm the only in line opening day. We need people like Von Trier to stir up shit and push buttons. He may make going too far the core of his aesthetic but that's probably because so much in popular culture doesn't go far enough.
Failure, Fiasco Or Secret Success?:Secret Success