The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article Before I saw Manderlay I would have argued that if you like one Von Trier film you are likely to greatly appreciate every other one. He seemed to be the kind of filmmaker the Coens once appeared to be: so reliably idiosyncratic and uniquely imaginative that fans of that vision and that world should never fear that their director could ever fail them. I’m not suggesting that Manderlay is Von Trier’s Intolerable Cruelty (2003), but it belongs in the same general ball-park.

If pressed to name a couple of things that make Von Trier’s films good, I might isolate his aesthetic style (different in each film but always linked to a grubby, haphazard kind of beauty), his self-consciously manipulative - but ruthlessly emotive - riffs on the evil-destroys-innocence melodrama, and the sometimes infuriatingly invasive presence his steely-gazed and mischievous authorial voice exerts over each one of his films.

What doesn’t immediately spring to mind is the thing he has recently become most famous for: his ‘social commentary’. That (American) critics took it upon themselves to lambast Dogville (2003) and Von Trier for being overtly anti-American has irretrievably affected the way his work is discussed, and also - I would argue, in light of Manderlay - the way the work is made. He has suddenly become - as probably the most high-profile arthouse filmmaker around right now - an unlikely torchbearer for politically focused arthouse cinema. He was even listed in this month’s GQ, the ‘lad’s mag’, as one of the 25 public figures who needs to “lighten up”. If this doesn’t tell us his persona has changed since Dogme95 (when he was, broadly, just considered a mad bugger) nothing does. This new persona, in my opinion, does not sit entirely comfortably.

Let’s not forget that between the transcendent Dogville and the troubled Manderlay was the relatively limp Thomas Vinterberg-directed, but Von Trier-written, Dear Wendy (2005). The film was somewhat similar to Dogville in its depiction of small-town America as a breeding ground for ill-conceived and ultimately destructive idealism - in this case represented by a group of outcast teenagers who form a gang who’s aim it is to be “pacifists with guns”. Quite apart from the lacklustre direction that made you long for Von Trier’s open-heart-laser-surgery approach, there was a sense that the script too was somewhat Von Trier-lite, with characters who were less complex than usual and allegorical overtones that were now far less subtle. It seemed that the criticism he received over the observations on America in Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Dogville had riled Von Trier enough for him to bite back, but with less creativity and power than usual. Why?

It is never good for an artist to begin responding to what his public expects of him, especially when he has built a reputation on doing precisely what he, and only he, wants as Von Trier has. This is, of course, assuming that he is turning his sites on America simply because he has been told he cannot. I can’t possibly say definitely either way- but I can guess based on the work.

Looking for social comment in the aesthetic and moral experiments of his “Golden Heart” trilogy - The Idiots (1998), Breaking the waves (1996) and Dancer turns up relatively little. Yes, there is the sense in The Idiots that the group’s “spazzing” is merely a spoiled rich kid’s longing for outsider status, and there are the Mcarthy-ite overtones to the courtroom scenes in Dancer, but these elements are in no way central and are certainly not where the films’ main strengths lie.

It is easy to see the transition Von Trier has made from his idealistic, innocent female victims to the harmful idealism of America. But this is the problem: the types of innocence are not the same, and Von Trier seems suddenly out of his thematic element. In order for his films to become comments on America a shift has had to occur: somewhere between Dogville (the transitional film) and Manderlay his central characters’ innocence has changed from being mainly self-destructive to being dangerous and oppressive to others. It’s a change that doesn’t quite feel organic, something that becomes clear when comparing the Grace of Dogville to the Grace in Manderlay.

In Dogville, we rightly sense that Grace is not the unsullied innocent she is mistaken for. She has seen the bad things in life, yet she is a good person and wrongly believes she has found in Dogville a refuge from the sins she knows all too well. That the town’s residents so disappoint her means they must be punished, she knows. By the film's end she seems almost godlike in her power and understanding. By Manderlay, she has regressed to an adolescent, naïve arrogance, resembling - in her misguided innocence - more a Dogville resident than her own previous self.

This is one of the things that makes me feel that the political commentary in Manderlay is somewhat forced and that it may only now be the main focus because of Von Trier’s contrary nature. That’s not, of course, to say he doesn’t care about racism, or about the Iraq war (he states on the Manderlay website he is starting to feel art should ideally serve a political purpose), only that such subjects are not his natural artistic obsession, and his attempts to squash them into his obsessions don’t quite ring true.

Of the three specific Von Trier pleasures I listed at the start of the piece, it is really only his status as a steely-gazed provocateur that is being indulged in Manderlay. Of course he fills this role wonderfully: something that can’t be stressed enough is that he has constructed very well thought out and challenging fable here. It’s just that (a) there are times when the commentary feels less fresh than it imagines itself to be (echoes of Spike Lee and Clare Denis’ Chocolat [1988] abound) and (b) we want more than this anyway. Because our central character is so unlikeable this time round there is none of the emotional anguish found in other Von Trier films - only an intellectual anguish for the predicament. As well as this, aesthetically, whereas the style in Dogville felt as integral to the film as the plot, in Manderlay the staging practically feels the same for the sake of continuity alone.

As confirmed in the fascinating Five Obstructions (2003), Von Trier is exhilarated by the idea of a film process backing him into a corner, making him exist outside his comfort zone. Manderlay, however, sees the director for the first time unintentionally out of his comfort zone, and in a way that doesn’t benefit the finished film.

This Alternate Take was published on April 05, 2006.

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