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Sneak Preview: “Manderlay”

Sneak Preview: "Manderlay"

Because there hasn’t been nearly enough controversy in the last few hours, I thought I’d weigh in briefly on Manderlay, and await the inevitable shitstorm.

Manderlay is ultimately a less interesting film than Dogville because its underlying allegory is so overwhelmingly transparent. An outsider liberating an unwilling (and unprepared) plantation and teaching them the ins and outs of democracy—sound familiar? Yet it’s still an extraordinary film, every bit as worthy as its predecessor. Obvious schema and politics aside, Trier does render some acute, ideologically neutral observations on democracy, economic systems, gender, racism, anthropology, humanitarian intervention and the pratfalls of dilettante liberalism (okay, so maybe not always so neutral).

Let me forestall the inevitable criticism: if Trier’s pandering to the left, there’s little value in preaching to the choir; and if slamming the right, his arguments will fall on deaf patrons. As always, he’s didactic, but I’m tired of fiction films being so apolitical; I believe it’s far better to have irate, engaged (if self-aggrandizing) filmmakers shouting into the wind. But If you can for a minute give Trier the benefit of the doubt and forgive his former showy pretensions, there’s less hucksterism on display in Manderlay. And he does something that I had been yearning for in Dogville. Trier actually addresses the drama’s Brechtian performativity—and in so doing, renders his homily much more potent.

Granted, Bryce Dallas Howard is no Nicole Kidman—she can’t conjure the bruised, steely fuck you that Nic bequeathed at the end of Dogville, and for a moment I swear she resembled Molly Ringwald. Kidman’s presence added an emotional punch that subdued the awkwardness of overt political declarations. Howard is not charismatic enough to do the same (though to be fair, I get the feeling that the opening act’s exposition is deliberately clunky).

Manderlay is by far the most idea-rich film I’ve seen this year, one that definitely warrants a second (or third) viewing. Anyone got an extra ticket?

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