Manderlay – Lars von Trier – Denmark 2005 Bryce Howard

Manderlay – Lars von Trier – Denmark 2005 Bryce Howard

Wobbly camera

The opening sequence comprised of digitally mastered shots plots the course of a small convoy of cars as it crosses a schematic political map of the USA, out of Texas and into the South. This convoy comes to a halt in the blackness of von Trier’s theatrically contrived studio space which contains the iconically and ironically named cotton plantation of Manderlay. As in the house of the same name in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, it is the past that permeates and controls the present of this eponymous foundation.

Manderlay – Lars von Trier – Denmark
2005 Bryce Howard

Viewed: 6 03 06 Cine Centre
Shaftsbury Avenue London: afternoon screening, ticket price £6-50

Wobbly camera

The opening sequence comprised of
digitally mastered shots plots the course of a small convoy of cars
as it crosses a schematic political map of the USA, out of Texas and
into the South. This convoy comes to a halt in the blackness of von
Trier’s theatrically contrived studio space which contains the
iconically and ironically named cotton plantation of Manderlay. As
in the house of the same name in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, it is the
past that permeates and controls the present of this eponymous
foundation.

Lars von Trier(LvT) picks up Manderlay
where Dogville left off. It’s still the Depression. It’s still
the same characters in the limousines. But it is not Nicole Kidman
who steps out at Manderlay but rather Bryce Dallas Howard. BDH now
plays the role of Grace, naïve torch carrier for the white
liberal conscience and the core values of rationality. Grace
arrested by the spectacle of the public flogging of a black slave,
decides to stay to impose on these people a new order for living.

For all its theatric devices, Dogville
worked as film. The inherent tendency of melodrama to break up and
degenerate into a soap opera parody of a self referential world was
checked by LvT’s bold invention and the caliber of the players.
The decision to use a bare stage with minimalist sets stripped of any
props that did not have a function, intensified the affect of the
actors. Seen against and pressed out of the encompassing and
encircling off stage darkness their presence was magnified; whilst at
the same time the ideas that they represented were proportional to
the mechanics of setting: Grace wants shelter; Grace wants work;
Grace wants to escape; Grace wants vengeance. These core
propositions in the script were realisable within the embrace of the
sparse sets. The tension between individual desire and the
circuitry of the collective machine was tested amplified and resolved
as drama. The relevance of individual desire and collective
responsibility to wider philosophical ideas was implicit rather than
explicit. The wider political and social implications of Dogville
were subtext not text. The dynamics of the scripting, the
intelligence of both Kidman’s playing of her lead role and the
supportive ensemble playing, were elements drawn together by long
hand held camera takes, producing a film that delivered a strong
dramatic statement to serve a moral vision.

Manderlay in contrast fails to convince
me that it is any thing more than a series of contrivances. The
initial situation is a contrivance: Manderlay is presented as a
plantation that some 70 years after abolition is still practicing
outright slavery. The role of Grace as the kick-ass feminist reformer
and the roles of the blacks as reluctant followers of the democratic
path all follow from a script that seems to have been contrived as a
heavy handed allegory on the dangers of enforcing compliance with a
one dimensional definition of freedom. An allegory that fits the
contemporary events in Iraq better than the situation of blacks in
the US today. Grace wants the practice of democracy; Grace wants the
practice of equal opportunities; Grace was social discrimination
banned. Grace gets her way because she can enforce it by using her
with superior force.

Like those seventeenth and eighteenth
century dramas which had persona named for their character traits
such a Coward, Rascal, Cheat, Hope etc, Manderlay’s characters are
intentionally overdetermined by their inventor and not permitted
behavioral deviations. LvT creates a mythic universe constrained in
time and space by his sets but the filmic language he uses doesn’t
serve to develop his mythic allegoric form, it works against it. His
camera, set to an agitated drifting autofocus, constantly moving
ducking diving bobbing weaving, deconstructs the mythic form. And in
losing its mythic form the construct loses its tension; the film
becomes a set of demands on the actors that they perform for the
camera, that they go through the motions of playing their parts. The
script instead of being a living thing dies in the camera and the
film becomes an apparatus for transporting the actors from the
beginning to the end of the script. A mechanical device.

This mechanicality is highlighted by
the ritualised humiliating fuck that BDH has to bend into with the
Cunning Black. As part of his antiromantic Hollywood crusade
LvTs lead actresses usually have to get a bad fuck. In
Dogville the tensions surrounding and permeating the space occupied
by Kidman through the camera, make the bad fuck work. It feels part
of the escalation of events in Dogville. In Manderley the bad
fuck is a deadly scripted device and mediated by what looks
increasingly like clumsy and cack handed camera work on the part of
LvT. The agitated restless hand held camera work makes Manderlay
feel more like soap opera than melodrama. And whereas myth can be
played melodramatically it doesn’t sit easily with soap form. And
the drift towards soap is compounded by the performance of BDH who
pouts beautifully in many and different ways and occasionally smiles
but has little by way of nuance to offer. This may have been LvT’s
reason for casting her(she has the haircut) as the architypic modern
organised female lead, but as played and shot she becomes
increasingly detached from the process of the film.

One questionable aspect of Dogville was
the use of the Voice Over as a character/narrator. This Voice,
played by John Hurt was written by LvT as a privileged text, privy to
the inner states of mind of some of the players and able to see
clearly what was happening and make succinct comments on the current
situation in the film. This Voice, rounded to inform us of its
intelligence and carefully modulated to insinuate itself into our
good graces, was the device that set up the action. At times it
threatened to subsume the action but in Dogville LvT avoided the
danger of the Voice becoming overbearing. If Hurt’s Voice was
occasionally overused in Dogville, in Manderlay the device becomes
increasingly irksome and finally plasters over all the cracks in the
film with a unitary layer of explanation. Where in Dogville the
voice fills in, in Manderlay it fills out explains, rounds and signs
off. Its not a layer, its a complete surface that exerts over the
material an expressive supremacy.

Manderlay is a film that spins out of
control. The constituent parts fail to interrelate or
interpenetrate. Camera work acting scripting and mise en scene each
pursue their own logic. But behind the facade of the film their
lies the intensity of Lars von Trier. Manderlay for all its
imperfections is intent that filmic expression should have a moral
intent. And Manderlay is always a film made with intelligence and
for this alone it is all the more worth seeing than most of the stuff
on the screen at the moment.

adrin neatrour

adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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