Behold part two of the American Trilogy, in which Lars von Trier depicts the white liberal as a particularly idiotic creature and black Americans as irreparably scarred. The story continues after Grace has fled Dogville and comes upon Manderlay — a plantation still with slaves, 70 years after Emancipation.
Resplendent in fur-collared coat, her guilt is stirred and she sets out on a quest to “save” Manderlay’s dark-skinned residents. After plantation matriarch Mam dies, Grace is horrified to discover “Mam’s Book” — a blueprint for the subjugation. But the freedom she grants them soon devolves into an equally regressive indentured servitude, so she civilizes the slaves — at the point of a gun. Democracy takes the form of council meetings, which proceed with tragicomic results under Grace’s well-intentioned moral bullying. Von Trier’s metaphorical intentions are obvious, but his technique is astounding. The potentially unbearable weight of such loaded symbolism and all that it implies might have sunk a lesser director. But not Lars. His portrayal of Grace’s benevolent colonization of Manderlay’s black subjects — and her misguided re-education of its former oppressors — stings with recognition.
Told as eight separate chapters, the film shares Dogville’s minimalist Brechtian set design and voice-over narration, both of which contribute to the occasionally didactic adult-fairy tale feel. There’s something to offend all but the thickest-skinned or most oblivious, but the scope and soaring scale of the director’s indictment is impressive.
Critics note that von Trier has never set foot in America, as if bearing witness to its atrocities is a prerequisite for passing judgment. In my experience as an ex-pat, exposure to the cruel extravagances of American society, especially in matters of race, has done little to sway my opinion. If anything, it has deepened my disillusionment. Maybe it’s for the best that von Trier is afraid of flying.
Opens January 27 at IFC Center