When last we saw Grace, the heroine of Lars von Trier’s 2004 film Dogville, she had just been through an ordeal. Tormented and enslaved by the residents of a Depression-era mountain town, she had escaped only through the timely arrival of her mob-boss dad'and [Dogville spoiler alert!] had unleashed her righteous fury against those who had done her wrong. In a von Trier film, this is what amounts to a happy ending.
The Grace we see at the beginning of Manderlay should be a changed woman'and not just because she is now being played by The Village’s Bryce Dallas Howard instead of Nicole Kidman. As obviously allegorical as Dogville was meant to be, with its bare-bones production and wink-nudge symbolic names, it was also an actual story about the arc of an actual character. And in Manderlay, that character vanishes entirely.
The devices von Trier employed in Dogville have not vanished, however. Once again, he sets his action on a stage with simple outlines replacing walls; once again, he gives John Hurt an opportunity to intone mellifluously von Trier’s arch narration. The circumstance is new'Grace and her dad (Willem Dafoe, taking over for James Caan), on the lam through Alabama in 1933, come upon a plantation called Manderlay where slavery is still being enforced'but otherwise, it’s the same framework for critiquing America that made Dogville so divisive.
Plenty of viewers could never see past von Trier’s contrived universe to appreciate Dogville, but that film at least pivoted around a character’s fate. Kidman gave Grace an idealism that was chipped away piece by piece, until she was disabused completely of the notion that the downtrodden can’t also do a little treading-down of their own. That dynamic gave the film’s conclusion a jolting power.
Manderlay’s ending never has a chance to achieve that kind of force'because nothing leading up to it makes any sense based on what we already know about Grace. Von Trier is careful to set up Manderlay as a follow-up to the same Grace we saw in Dogville, using a prologue to describe her flight from the town. But her behavior in this new film feels ridiculously at odds with her Dogville ordeal. Moved to action by her discovery at Manderlay, Grace leaves her father and stays there with some of his henchmen, bringing to her supervisory efforts a kind of condescending white liberal guilt last seen on college campuses of the late 1980s. And since we know that Grace has only recently gotten the crap kicked out of her for counting on the inherent goodness of the underclass, either she’s incredibly stupid or von Trier believes we are.
With no remotely plausible character foundation on which to build, Manderlay has nothing to fall back on but its hectoring thesis statements about American racism. Grace, of course, not only feels that the former slaves of Manderlay need her guidance'at the force of gangster gunpoint, if need be'but also lusts for the exotic forbidden fruits of Manderlay’s most rebellious resident, Timothy (Isaach De BankolÃ©). We watch the starving residents of Manderlay resort to stealing food from one another, turning to black-on-black violence. And behind it all we can see von Trier wagging his finger at all parties concerned.
In fact, it’s fairly staggering how quickly the entire enterprise begins to feel like a huge joke at our expense. In one of the film’s most laughable sequences, Grace’s roiling desire for Timothy gets her so worked up that she begins to pleasure herself. And this is the voice-over narration von Trier trots out to describe what ensues: “pulsating explosions in her nether regions.” Just like that, a piercing indictment of a nation’s bigotry turns into something that should have a picture of Fabio on the cover.
It’s all a kind of artistic tragedy'not just because it’s fuel for the legions of von Trier playa-hatas, but because he’s actually taking a chance on some fairly explosive ideas about the world of post-slavery African-Americans. But once it’s impossible to accept that this Grace is anything but a convenient foil for von Trier’s notions, Manderlay becomes exactly the kind of pretentious and obvious diatribe Dogville was not. As von Trier replicates Dogville’s closing montage of historical snapshots'again set to David Bowie’s “Young Americansâ€'the juxtaposition of George Bush with civil-rights marches feels like one final clonk on the head so we don’t forget that all this is just as applicable to the present day. It would appear that Grace isn’t the only one who didn’t learn her lesson about not underestimating the people you’re talking to.