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(Above: Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace)

Letter to America: Feisty Dogville sequel has familiar style but fresh insights

Director/Writer: Lars von Trier
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Isaach De Bankolé, Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny
Studio info: IFC Films, 139 mins.

Critics gave Thomas Vinterberg’s recent film Dear Wendy, written by Lars von Trier, a pretty savage beating, but many of them read the film as an uninformed critique of America’s gun culture rather than a somewhat better-informed critique of America’s foreign policy.

Vinterberg may have created the confusion himself by expanding the story’s human side in ways I doubt would’ve interested von Trier. Also, the movie’s commentary is subtle as a two-by-four to the noggin. But does Dear Wendy really make any less sense than A Clockwork Orange, which was nominated for four Academy Awards? Of course, that movie—with its violent bands of dandy youths—ridicules Britain instead of America. Dear Wendy certainly has some rough edges, but they now seem like the germs of an idea more fully realized in von Trier’s own new film, Manderlay.

Danish troublemaker von Trier has, for the first time, repeated himself. But also for the first time he has something particularly timely to say, and if saying it means duplicating Dogville’s distinctive style—a skeletal town of white lines on a black background—and thus raising the ire of critics who’ve called his inventions “gimmicks,” so be it. Manderlay picks up where Dogville leaves off but with only the slimmest connection to the earlier film. Bryce Dallas Howard takes over for Nicole Kidman in the role of Grace who stumbles onto another troubled American town, one where slavery is still practiced as it was two centuries ago. Shocked and appalled, Grace marches into Manderlay with some of her father’s armed goons to set things right. She locks up the plantation owners, abolishes slavery and helps the town’s black residents—played by a universally strong cast led by Danny Glover and Isaac de Bankolé—regain their self-determination.

Like Dogville, Manderlay is ridiculous on paper, but the witty narration—spoken again by John Hurt—never assumes otherwise. (Von Trier presumably wrote the English dialogue, although the wordplay is so wry and colloquial, it’s hard not to suspect he had help.)

As von Trier’s wicked allegory becomes clear, he picks up the pace and punctuates the revelations with elegant use of jump cuts, making Manderlay more fleet and economical than Dogville. It doesn’t offer much insight into America’s race issues, which might seem at first to be its target, but it works very well as a metaphor for America’s intervention in Iraq, and linking the two situations is particularly inspired, even useful. If we want to know what difficulties might be involved in liberating an oppressed people, von Trier suggests we may find a good example on our own soil.

He also underscores America’s culpability in both cases, which is the sort of thing that attracts the “anti-American” label. But the thrust of his argument is constructive: leveling the playing field is difficult, and doing it poorly leads to a new form of slavery. It’s the kind of observation that’s more likely to come from an outsider keenly interested in American culture than from someone immersed in it, the kind of outsider who makes fables for adults.

I’ve been a reluctant fan of von Trier since he left the emotional manipulation of Dancer in the Dark behind, and Manderlay may be the most coherent of his narrative features. But unlike Dogville, which I enjoyed, Manderlay makes me see the world differently, which is worth far more.