Manderlay

Opens Fri., Feb. 24, at Uptown

Dogville cast member Stellan Skarsgård has Lars von Trier's number: "a hyper-intelligent child who is slightly disturbed, playing with dolls in a dollhouse, cutting their heads off with nail clippers." Everything about him is malign child's play, even his name—he added the "von" for the pretentious fun of it, like Erich von Stroheim. Sometimes he plays dirty and wins, as in his 1996 masterpiece Breaking the Waves, or fails horribly yet in such a weirdly fascinating way it's still aesthetically valuable, as in his 2003 Brechtian fable Dogville.

The Dogville sequel Manderlay in some ways fails less horribly than its predecessor. It's less ridiculously long and predictable. But it's a dry, shrunken thing, like an apple forgotten on a windowsill. Instead of the adamantine Nicole Kidman as Grace, the 1933 gangster's daughter, we get the ingenue Bryce Dallas Howard, the blank-faced spawn of Ron Howard. Willem Dafoe takes James Caan's role as Grace's bad dad, and plays it with more bloodless smiling irony.

In our last episode, Grace fled for unknown reasons to a Colorado mining town resembling Thornton Wilder's Our Town, whose residents repaid her many kindnesses by raping her. Now her dad's gangster caravan rolls into another symbolic American town, an Alabama plantation where slavery is basically unchanged 70 years after the Civil War. Like Dogville, Manderlay is a bare black stage with chalk marks denoting buildings and trees, a few minimal props, and deadpan melodramatic happenings whose overobvious moral lessons are drawn in plummily sardonic voice-over by John Hurt.

Grace halts the whipping of a black man, deposes Manderlay's dying tyrant Mam (Lauren Bacall), decries "Mam's Book," the racist code of laws that divides the slaves into categories like "proudly nigger," and imposes democracy with the help of a handful of her dad's gangster thugs. This is supposed to satirize Bush's efforts in Iraq, but before too long, von Trier loses interest in this toy and his attention wanders to other dolls to decapitate.

Despite the warnings of lead slave Wilhelm (Danny Glover) not to mess with plantation tradition, Grace makes everybody vote on everything from the correct time to farm policy, though she won't let them change her socialized collectivist pay structure. Sticky questions arise. When an old lady steals food from a dying young girl, should the community get to lynch her? Is Grace wise to chop down Mam's tree grove for new cabins, given the dust-bowl conditions? (Hasn't she seen The Grapes of Wrath?) Is her dictatorial high-handedness the right way to deal with the unruly gangsters, a sinister gambler (Zeljko Ivanek) who's conning the blacks out of their money, and the white plantation residents, whom she forces to don blackface and serve the blacks in abject fashion?

Von Trier is just noodling with ideas, not actually saying anything. Dogville was maddeningly, numbingly monomaniacal, but at least it had a point: People (at least Americans) are no damn good. Manderlay has lots of little points it begins to make and then doesn't bother to. Dogville's characters are lurid types; Manderlay'sare a muddled, barely differentiated ensemble, suggesting that von Trier's ignorance of black Americans is even vaster than his ignorance of white ones. (He's never been here.) When famine strikes and Grace's response is to get horny for the most ill-tempered, least-talkative black, Timothy (Isaach de Bankolé), who puts a cloth over her face and fucks her coldly, von Trier clearly means to insult and provoke us all, but what his hate speech means to say is utterly mystifying.

The intended message of Manderlay is: Everybody's a fraud, except for Mr. "I added a 'von' to my name." The effect is that of watching a little boy playing with dolls with which he's gotten bitterly, desperately bored. But Von Trier's canceled until further notice his previously announced plan to finish the Dogville trilogy. All the dolls of America sigh in relief. (NR)

 
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