- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

Danish director Lars Von Trier’s new digital video experiment “Manderlay” opens with a group of slaves being freed. Too bad the cruel, artless mess of a movie that ensues puts the audience in bondage instead.

Heavily influenced by mid-20th-century dramatist Bertolt Brecht, who argued that drama should avoid realism and inspire social activism, Mr. Von Trier’s loathsome movie is a shallow exercise in fashionable, avant-garde nihilism. Where Mr. Brecht offered poignant, socially concerned drama, Mr. Von Trier plies witless pedantry masquerading as intellectual depth.

The film is the second part of Mr. Von Trier’s planned America trilogy, and the story picks up where the first part, 2003’s “Dogville,” left off. It’s 1933 when Grace, a gangster’s daughter played by Bryce Dallas Howard, arrives at the gated Alabama community of Manderlay where, 70 years after its official end, slavery is still in effect. Using the muscle of her father’s goons, she ends the practice, puts the slave owners to work, and begins teaching the newly freed slaves lessons in democracy.

Told in storybook fashion on a sparsely decorated, darkened sound stage reminiscent of a black box theater, the film boasts dryly titled chapters and a gleefully vicious narration by John Hurt. It’s designed to feel like a twisted, anti-American fable.

Mr. Hurt’s narration delights in bluntly racist sentiments. It casually drops nasty epithets and racially charged remarks, preening and posing with desperate vulgarity. Swaggering with dim hipster arrogance, the voiceover seems to sneer at its audience, hoping to bully them into accepting its slanders as swank irony.

The grating dialogue delivered by the characters is no better. Miss Howard, stepping into the role played by Nicole Kidman in “Dogville,” plays Grace as a shrill narcissist who, like the film, is always demanding and declaring something. By the time her lessons in democracy devolve into sophomoric, anti-American symbolism that suggests that democracy is just another form of slavery, the film’s offense-levels have risen so high that they almost cease to register.

The final montage, which sets photos of historical racial strife to a cheery rendition of David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” is like a sledgehammer to the gut of someone who’s already been beaten into paralysis.

All this might have been more tolerable had it been presented without complete disregard for the audience. At nearly two hours, fifteen minutes long, the film is a chore to sit through. The seasick, shaky camerawork comes off as yet another of Mr. Von Trier’s pointless affectations, and the harsh, flat, digital images are as dull and depthless as everything else in the film.

Mr. Von Trier seems to be aware of his film’s likely reception, even acknowledging it in the script when a character makes the typically imperious statement, “Never mind those close-minded folks who think they know what art is meant to look like.”

Undoubtedly, there is a debate to be had about how art looks, but it doesn’t resemble “Manderlay.”

*1/2

TITLE: “Manderlay”

RATING: R (Nudity, crude sexuality and language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Lars Von Trier

RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.manderlaythefilm.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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