Civilization and democracy just aren’t sexy, all right? Considered in the looming, lurid light of NYMPH()MANIAC (2014), this seems to be the most salient point we can take away from MANDERLAY, once (still?) intended to be the middle passage in Lars von Trier’s trilogy about — or at least set in — the United States, but looking from our current vantage point more and more like a comparatively minor addendum to its predecessor, DOGVILLE (2003).
The set-up is simple enough. Acid-tongued narrator John Hurt brings us up to speed straightaway, describing — while visually accompanied by an over-world map of the US — Grace and her extended gangster family’s trek out of Colorado and, somewhat tortuously, into the American South. Here they stumble across a plantation untouched by time and progress, on which the institution of slavery persists. The estate’s matriarch (Lauren Bacall redux) is dying, and Grace (a role abandoned by Nicole Kidman and incarnated but not animated here by Bryce Dallas Howard) is all too happy to pitch in and help out however she can, beginning by issuing an emancipation proclamation of her own.
It turns out that she can only make things worse (Who saw that coming?). The film quickly devolves into a hackneyed thought-experiment in which the variables and the outcome are all rigged — once again, the blinkered benevolence of bleeding-heart liberals ends up harming those it sets out to help. Many saw MANDERLAY in the context of the Iraq war, conflating Grace with George Bush — both of them (putatively) well-intentioned humanitarians who, expecting to be greeted as liberators, only compound pre-existing catastrophes while creating new ones. This is, I expect, an over-generous reading of the film. MANDERLAY is ultimately another apology for power; it evinces contempt both for the oppressed and for those who seek to help them.
Despite its (mercifully, many will feel) shorter running time, MANDERLAY lacks the cogency of allegorical logic that maintained tension and interest through the previous film’s longeurs. It’s an ugly, arid film, point blank, but for the completist and/or masochist it’s definitely worth seeing, if only to witness the nadir from which von Trier soon rebounded.
2/14 – 7:30PM
2/15 – 11AM
Museum of Fine Arts
Remis Auditorium, 161
$7 MFA members, seniors, and students // $8 nonmembers