August 30th, 2007 DVD Reviews, Film, Xpress

Lars von Trier may be among the best directors working today. No, not because of the no-sets, stageshow-like dogme style he made famous with 2003’s Dogville.

What makes von Trier a candidate for greatness is the precious few directors who still use cinema as a conduit to say something, rather than just showcase special effects or sell video game tie-ins. After centuries of commerce co-opting the arts, even we in the audience forget the purpose of art is to comment on the human condition.

And so, midway through his America trilogy, von Trier is again commenting on the glaring hypocrisies of the United States.

Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) has left Dogville with her gangster father (Willem Dafoe) and his henchmen. When a young black woman approaches them asking for help beside the road, Grace is taken to the sprawling cotton plantation of Manderlay where a man is about to be flogged — a slave, punished by his owners.

Outraged, Grace convinces her father to leave her there with enough of his muscle to free the slaves. She sets about creating a just society on the plantation — drawing up legal documents to entitle equal ownership of the enterprise, enslaving the white family in revenge and educating everyone about the principles of democracy.

Slowly, subtly, Grace’s conviction in her good deed unravels as her encouraging the blacks of Manderlay to lead their own lives doesn’t go as planned. Sometimes it’s as harmless as when an argument breaks out about the correct time that must be settled by a popular vote. Sometimes it’s as devastating as when it turns Grace into an executioner — by a popular vote.

You’ll see all manner of critique of the US in Manderlay. If you like, it can be about the need for practicality over flag-waving idealism. You can even attribute it to Iraq; Grace leaves Manderlay a shadow of its former self after her determination to bring freedom has backfired; sound familiar?

Whatever von Trier’s intentions, he’s a consummate satirist. The barbs at the American Way aren’t just there in the script — while the onscreen goings-on turn violent and shocking, John Hurt’s bombastic narration still sounds like he’s reading a bedtime story to an enthralled child.

Apparently Americans didn’t like being shown their cultural shortcomings; Manderlay hasn’t nearly recouped its $14m cost. Don’t let that put you off. It’s a story that should be told — the story it’s telling is up to your interpretation, but it’ll be an essential one that will stay with you for a long time. It’s hard to believe no extras exist even though there aren’t any on this disc — watch for the inevitable box set of the whole trilogy.

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