I saw Dogville while covering the 2004 Santa Barbara Film Festival and it’s been haunting me ever since. The film is simultaneously brutal, dynamic, unforgiving, and most importantly, thought-provoking. Countless so-called “society” types walked out, muttering expletitives, angry at the whole exhibition. Lars von Trier had hit a nerve, and it was great. People were angry because they saw a side of themselves on the screen that nobody wants to admit they have. More importantly, Dogville clings to the idea that America, like every other powerhouse in history, stands by a sense of privelage and due that can ulitamtely become it’s very undoing.
Sadly, Manderlay, the middle section of von Trier’s supposed “America Trilogy”, looses much of Dogville‘s shock and awe technique by covering familiar ground. Grace, now played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is travelling with her gangster father (Willem Dafoe), searching for another town to set up shop. They come across Manderlay, a plantation in the heart of Alabama still practicing slavery as if it was pre-1865. Grace, dumbfounded by the injustices occurring before her very eyes, decides to act, unseat the Master (Lauren Bacall), and act as guardian for the slaves to improve their lives.
It turns out that quick reconstruction isn’t possible, Grace realizing she’s in for a long, hard journey towards “modern day civilization.” Von Trier continues to use his stage sets, outlines of structures, handheld camera, and voice-over narration (the timeless John Hurt) and these techniques don’t have the immediate impact or surprise they had in Dogville. And von Trier’s constant critiquing of American involvement in “foregin” environments doesn’t seem as scathing or important as before. Yes, a naive young white woman thinks she’s doing to right thing by helping out the poor helpless black people, and their are destructive consequences. But while Dogville presents a tragic scenario of misunderstanding, jealousy, and mob violence based on class, Manderlay and the race issue feels forced and blown away.