In Manderlay, Lars von Trier’s latest attempt to shock the moviegoers of America with what a hectoring avant-garde bore he can be, Grace, the heroine of Dogville (2004), having lived through the tortures of the damned (though no more so than the audience), sets upon the task of liberating black America. Trekking through this Not So Great Land of Ours, Grace, now played by Bryce Dallas Howard instead of Nicole Kidman, winds up at Manderlay, a plantation where slavery never ended, despite the fact that the year is 1933. Suffused with nobility, she declares the slaves, including Danny Glover as a bow-tied patriarch and Issach De Bankolé as a scowling rebel, to be free, and she turns their former overseers into indentured workers. And who, pray, will lead the former slaves in their new life of freedom? Why, Grace herself.
The irony of this is not lost on von Trier. In fact, he spends two and a half hours clonking us over the head with it. Manderlay extends the dour Brechtian minimalism of Dogville. Once again, a mostly bare stage is dotted with lines that stand in for houses and gardens, and von Trier’s handheld camera shoves its way into the actors’ faces, hovering there with accusatory intimacy. As before, John Hurt recites the verbose fake?Masterpiece Theatre narration in tones so plummy and rich that the uglier the actions he describes become, the more the narrator seems to be mocking them. (The word nigger trips gleefully off his tongue.) What’s novel about Manderlay is the focus of von Trier’s contempt: In Dogville, he subjected his heroine to the sadistic whims of small-town meanies, but now it is Grace herself who has become a rigid annoyance.
Von Trier takes Bryce Dallas Howard, who had a quality of lyrical innocence in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, and turns her into a painfully uningratiating scold. Grace, in her self-appointed role as avenger of America’s racial past, is presented as a caricature of a naive dogmatic liberal. Howard plays her with the calmness — the stilled rage — of a radical-left grad student chewing out her professor because she thinks he isn’t pure enough. When she teaches the former slaves how to vote away their problems, introducing the concept of majority rule, her words may be correct, but her tone is cold and patronizing: an insult.
The real insult is von Trier’s presumption that audiences will fail to see through Grace’s naïveté, or that her slow comeuppance — white guilt roasting on a spit — will fill us with fascinated dread.
Manderlay is turgid and hollow. The movie ends with yet another ”Young Americans” montage, this one set to shameful photographs of U.S. racial history: lynchings, cross burnings, Martin Luther King Jr. lying in his coffin. Von Trier, there’s no doubt about it, has become a taxidermist of America’s sins, but the way he puts those sins on display only to thumb his nose at them marks him as a new style of prankster-hypocrite.