Manderlay: the danger of do-gooding

spiked-film: Lars von Trier's film about slavery ruthlessly attacks meddlesome liberalism.

<I>Manderlay is the sequel to Lars von Trier’s Dogville, and the second in a trilogy exploring modern America. With a new cast, the film continues where the previous one left off, trailing a motley crew of itinerant gangsters searching for new hunting grounds in Depression-era America. Their search leads them to stumble upon the isolated Alabama plantation of Manderlay, where slavery continues unabated, complete with floggings, nearly a century after Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation.  The story follows the failure of the protagonist, the daughter of the mob boss, Grace (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), to bring freedom, community and democracy to the slaves of Manderlay.

For all its promising themes, Manderlay falls short of DogvilleDogville saw Grace escaping her cynical gangster father by assimilating in to the eponymous Colorado community, and ingratiating herself with the locals. But Grace’s overweening compassion for the plight of the indigent Dogville townsfolk leads her to ignore all their foibles, attributing them purely to the people’s poverty and ignorance.  Her refusal to judge the townsfolk for their actions leads Grace to submit passively to their ever-growing and increasingly animalistic demands, leading to her own debasement and slavery. By treating the townsfolk as ignorant beasts incapable of choice, sure enough, they become beasts.

Grace, even as she is degraded by Dogville’s inhabitants, never loses her arrogant self-assurance in her own superiority over the town’s brutish natives. She proves this by the way in which finally, at her father’s prompting, she comes round to judging the town’s inhabitants: with unmitigated savagery. Having failed to live up to Grace’s perverse expectations of the townsfolk to be both poor and gentle, Dogville’s inhabitants are punished by Grace, who implements what Kurtz only dreams of in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: ‘Exterminate the brutes!’ The film’s apocalyptic denouement shows the underbelly of Grace’s compassion with which the film began.

Manderlay approaches this liberal humanitarian theme from a different angle.  Grace has no need to ingratiate herself on the plantation, because this time, as she tells her father before he leaves her to her political experiment, she ‘has guns’. The premise of both films is original. Instead of repeating Apocalypse Now by exporting Americans to the jungle or desert, Trier allows the story to unfold in an American setting.

Whether this makes Trier anti-American or not, as many of his detractors allege, is a moot point. In an era dominated by the politics of compassion, victimhood and humanitarianism, the films manage to transcend whatever Euro-snobbery might motivate Trier himself. That said, both films are not reducible to fables about victimhood. The stories are studded with various sub-themes: the role of the vacillating intellectual embodied in Tom, Grace’s would-be saviour in Dogville; Grace’s fetishisation of black men’s sexuality embodied in Timothy, in Manderlay; and Grace’s relationship with her intelligent but brutal father, played in Manderlay by Willem Dafoe.

The artistic strength of Dogville is that Grace’s failure to re-shape the community is played out subtly, through the gradual changes that overcome the individuals who comprise the townsfolk. Each character, from the children to the elders, responds to Grace’s self-abasement by enacting the expected role of brute in their own particular way.  By contrast, Manderlay is weaker for being more straightforward. This time round, Grace simply imposes her will on the plantation via a benevolent dictatorship: she emancipates the slaves and re-orders the community’s entire social life with the gangsters at her disposal. As the new social system is imposed externally by force, rather than affected through Grace’s behavior as in Dogville, the disintegration of Grace’s plans is less subtle.

As with Dogville, so with Manderlay, Grace’s good intentions come to nothing, as she mismanages the plantation economy, the newly democratic community votes to execute one of their own, falls into strife, and eventually votes to re-instate slavery, forcing Grace to become the new ma’am of the plantation.

The notion that black people would reject the freedom given to them has provoked anger in liberal circles, with the Guardian’s Gary Younge protesting that it ‘doesn’t even work as a metaphor’ (1). But Trier has a point: freedom cannot be imposed or granted on a silver platter - it can only be taken. As the slaves of Manderlay do not make their own freedom, it is hardly surprising that they have no use for it, and end by fulfilling the patronising prophecies of Grace’s father. In Dogville, Grace’s failure turned her into a gangster; in Manderlay, Grace becomes a more savage ma’am than the one she ousted. Trier is also unflinching in his portrayal of the wily, self-serving slaves, roundly disabusing the audience of any romantic notion that there is nobility in suffering and oppression.

Like Dogville, Manderlay is refreshing for being so relentless in its portrayal of the brutal dead-end of meddlesome liberalism. Aside from being less subtle in exploring the contradictions of the liberal character, it is also weaker on other counts.  The frosty, brittle Nicole Kidman provides a more detached, haughty Grace in Dogville than Bryce Howard’s warmer and more self-righteous Grace in Manderlay. Manderlay avoids being ponderous, but unlike Dogville, this comes at the cost of Trier fulfilling his critics’ accusations of being self-consciously impish and playful.

For all that, Trier’s latest offering should be warmly welcomed for challenging some of the fatuous liberal orthodoxies of our era.

Philip Cunliffe studies international relations at King’s College London.  Email him at philip.cunliffe@kcl.ac.uk.

Read on:

In spiked-film last week: Karl Sharro on Syriana.

(1) Liberty? No thanks, Guardian 24 February 2006

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