Manderlay: UK Edition Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the UK Region 2 release of Manderlay, Lars Von Trier’s typically provocative follow-up to Dogville, on release from Metrodome.

Manderlay is the second film in a projected trilogy by Lars Von Trier, “USA – The Land of Opportunities”. The first was Dogville. The final part will be called Washington, though Von Trier has put this on hold until he feels mature enough to tackle it.

Manderlay begins where Dogville ended, in 1933, with Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over the role from the unavailable Nicole Kidman) and her gangster father (Willem Dafoe, similarly replacing James Caan) fleeing the burning town of Dogville. They come across Manderlay, Alabama, an estate run like an old-time plantation by Mam (Lauren Bacall), seventy years after the abolition of slavery. Grace is appalled by this, and sets about to change this state of affairs, freeing the slaves and giving them a democratic voice in the running of the plantation. But she soon finds that it isn’t as easy as all that.

The style of Manderlay is familiar from Dogville. The film was shot on digital video with largely hand-held cameras, on a giant soundstage, with no scenery and minimal props. Also familiar is the division of the film into chapters (eight this time) and John Hurt’s sardonic narration. Those who found Dogville simplistically anti-American – Von Trier has, by his own admission, never visited the USA – are unlikely to be persuaded by this new film, especially as it too ends with a montage of photographs accompanied by David Bowie’s “Young Americans”. But as with the first film Manderlay is more complex than that. Grace frequently comes across as a naïve, liberal do-gooder, trying to correct a situation that she clearly only half-understands, and just as likely to patronise the blacks as to liberate them. And also, she harbours some dark erotic desires towards black men, leading to a highly ambiguous scene that is either seduction or rape depending on how you look at it. While some see misanthropy, others will see in Von Trier’s recurring and all but sadomasochistic interest in female degradation a troubling misogyny.

As with Dogville, Von Trier uses his format, and his Brechtian-style distancing devices, to ask some uncomfortable questions, and does so without considerations of taste or political correctness. Can we enforce democracy on people who in some ways have a better life without it? Or is that only because those people have been infantilised and marginalised by that very lack of freedom?

Inevitably, Manderlay lacks the surprise of Dogville’s style and look, but on the other hand it’s a shorter, tighter piece of work. Von Trier’s filmmaking methods, post Breaking the Waves give a lot of space to their cast, in particular their leading actresses. Bryce Dallas Howard makes the role of Grace her own to such an extent that you forget about Nicole Kidman while she’s on screen.

Like its predecessor, Manderlay takes a little getting used to, but if you’re sympathetic to its aims and style it’s an engrossing and provocative two hours plus. A final note: while the film was in production there were reports that a donkey was slaughtered on screen, resulting in John C. Reilly leaving the film. This scene is not in the final version – just as well, as it would very likely have had problems being passed by the BBFC.

Manderlay was previously reviewed for this site in its two-disc Danish edition by Noel Megahey here. I’ll cut to the chase: for sheer numbers of extras, the Danish edition wins. However, Metrodome’s single disc is quite acceptable. It is available on its own and as part of a two-disc edition with Dogville, released on the same date. (The affiliate links to the left are for the single-disc edition.) The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only.

The transfer is in the correct ratio of 2.40:1, anamorphically enhanced. Von Trier is on record as saying that Dogville looked too glossy for his liking, and he was after a more rough-hewn look for Manderlay. The film is more darkly lit than its predecessor, making shadow detail important, especially when placing dark-skinned actors against underlit scenery and a black cyclorama. The transfer is certainly sometimes soft, but it’s a good one considering the original materials.

Manderlay’s main soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, but as with Dogville this isn’t a showy mix. For much of the time everything comes out of the central speaker, though at key moments the surrounds are used – for example, voices at the end of the first chapter. At times there seemed to be leakage into one or other surround channel: I don’t know if this was a fault with the sound mix, or just simply something wrong with the checkdisc I received to review.

One advantage this edition has over the Danish one is that it does include English subtitles, for the feature and the making-of documentary, but not the commentary or trailer. There are nine chapter stops, one for each of the film’s eight chapters and one for the end credits. That’s very few for a two-and-a-quarter-hour film and results in some lengthy chapters. The first one, for example, runs some twenty-five minutes.

The extras on this disc are all on the Danish edition. The main one is a commentary with Von Trier and DP Anthony Dod Mantle. This is conducted in English, with Dod Mantle often prompting Von Trier. However, the director has plenty to say, and does so in a frequently ironic way. There’s a lot of technical discussion in the use of lighting and the giant soundstage, particularly on how to use lighting to pick out dark-skinned faces.

Secondly, there is a making-of featurette, “The Road to Manderlay” (44:34), which begins with a brief run-through of Von Trier’s career to date and a summary of the plot of Dogville. It contains footage from on the giant shooting-stage with interviews with the cast and principal crews (in Danish or English as appropriate). Finally, there is the theatrical trailer (2:02).

If you want the version with the most extras, then go for the Danish edition. However, more casual viewers will find the commentary and the making-of featurette quite sufficient, and the presence of English subtitles on Metrodome’s DVD will be a plus for some people. Whichever you choose, Manderlay is a provocative film from one of the most consistently interesting and challenging directors currently active, and deserves to be seen.


Updated: Jul 11, 2006

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