Provocateur Lars von Trier’s films have always been, more or less, well, provocative. His films, often depicting a strangely gruesome truth in a very human reality, like Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, or Antichrist, have always been extremely divisive. Yet, most of his loyal fans have been able to come up with a defense for him, especially regarding technical mastery and artistic integrity. However, there was a change in the air when his three hour, “Let’s Piss Off the Americans” parable was released. Why was this? Supposedly, his film, Dogville, was a harsh criticism of a country he had never been to. That’s quite obvious. Its follow up, Manderlay, continued that thesis. But why did these two films manage to ruffle so many feathers? And what did it all mean? Even if the answers are muddled and indiscernible, both films, particularly the former, are masterworks of satire and social commentary. Originally conceived as a trilogy, called “USA – Land of Opportunity”, the two films that have been made so far are an undeniably infuriating, honest, and stylish look at America’s hypocrisy.
While I was in middle school, I was subjected (yes, subjected) to reading and watching Our Town, a play that, to me, was inexplicably acclaimed and vastly overrated. My view has changed slightly since then, but the personal look at a small town and all the innocuous details of day to day life simply bored me to death at the time. Thornton Wilder seemed to want to blend the realism of everyday life with the distinctly imaginative use of minimal sets and almost no props. Seeing it live was like watching a naked stage. I would like to thank my middle school English teachers, however, for putting me through the experience, twice. Without that, I would not appreciate Lars von Trier’s own witty, poisonous take on American life.
In brief, Grace, played by the lovely Nicole Kidman, and her alabaster hands have stumbled upon the town of Dogville, escaping from fairly intimidating men in black cars. Thomas (Paul Bettany, and you can see him cry in the doc Dogville Confessions), the town’s philosopher, suggests to the townspeople that they take her in and protect her. In return, Grace agrees to help each member of the town every day with little tasks. Little by little, as Grace proves more dangerous to the town, Dogville begins to “bare its teeth”.
Were it not for John Hurt’s wry narration, Dogville would look almost exactly like Wilder’s Our Town, but appropriated in the Midwest. We are told that the town’s buildings are fairly ramshackle and almost dilapidated, something the mind can compare to a ghetto of sorts. The imagery, what we see on the screen though, is pure starkness and minimalism. With props here and there, von Trier places more focus and importance on the characters themselves, for they will put his conceit into motion. The minimalist set design is a curious opportunity for pure mise-en-scene, and despite von Trier’s Dogme 95 rooted handheld camerawork, scene construction still works in a fascinatingly naturalistic way.
But rather than approach these films in my typical, sterile way, why not get down to some analysis? What exactly does it all mean? The auteur made this film to make Americans angry 9which he did), but what could have made them so angry?
Nicole Kidman’s character has a name which, for the bulk of the film, epitomizes her personality. She is kind, helpful, she does not complain. Even in moments where she should complain or accuse, she opts not to. She always sees the good in people. She is Liberty. She is the overeager, almost “be the hero” tendencies of the United States, the Good Samaritan of the world who is willing to do anything, feigning humbleness, but just as much in need of recognition and praise. A young child in the film walks up to Grace and says, “I know why you’re here. You want people to like you. You want to fit in.” This sounds almost like a statement that the United Nations or NATO could give out, if they had the guts. The constant remarks from the narrator about Grace’s alabaster hands leads one to believe that she, Liberty, has never really worked. That her naiveté and newness has never forced her to put in some elbow grease. But upon seeing an opportunity of helping a community less fortunate than herself, which you could substitute for any country or any disaster prone town, she then puts in all the hard work she could muster. There does not seem to be anything terribly wrong with this criticism, as history has shown that, regardless of whether “we” are supposed to or not, “we” like helping people. And “we” always think they need or want our help. While the town of Dogville is at first hesitant on letting Grace in so far into their lives, even helping with day to day tasks (the pedestrian feel accentuates the satirical turn of Our Town), they seem to give in, either begrudgingly or because they actually need some assistance. Do the countries the United States really need help or does the United States simply act completely innocent and somehow nose its way into the lives of others? It is this kind of question that von Trier forces the audience to ask itself, and there are far more.
The Town of Dogville, USA, while being any other ghetto or country you can think of can also represent the United States itself. Despite its rather derelict state, Dogville is a proud town and represents the Heart of America, to some extent. And at the heart and core of America is a generous and kind façade, one that has consequently influenced much of American history, especially when that mask has been unceremoniously ripped off. The townspeople seem nice, although slightly helpless, but generally full of good will. Though, the town of Dogville has sharp teeth to bear when it needs to. Grace and Dogville are to allegories about America as Janus is to Roman mythology. They are two faces of the same coin, and one could argue that Dogville is Janus all on its own, the duplicitous two-faced god, one face looking forward in favor of exploration and advancement and the other looking back, stubborn and obstinate, wishing for things to remain the way they always have. Thomas Edison Jr.’s philosophically inclined character seems to represent the pseudointellectual vein in America that leads us absolutely nowhere but pondering in our rooms answering no real “worthwhile” questions. Dogville begins to bare its teeth when keeping Grace becomes more of a risk. They want more help. Soon, Dogville’s acts become slightly more unethical. They require Grace to work more with less pay (sound familiar?) On the far end of the spectrum, after all the brainless accusations and Grace’s naïve refusal to say anything else on the matter and after Grace attempts to escape Dogville, they require her to wear a device that is like an anchor with a bell around her neck. While this may be interesting, undoubtedly, and a terrible refection of the United States’ questionable history (as compared to its small town, “we accept everything and everyone” façade), there is one scene that rings perhaps the most disturbing regarding the town of Dogville. Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard, who seems to be in nearly everything von Trier has ever made) sexually assaults Grace, but Grace says nothing. Could von Trier be commenting, criticizing a society which has somehow taught its people that when someone is raped, it is the victim’s fault? That they are to blame for whatever situation they “put themselves in”? And despite the fact that Chuck’s wife, Vera (Patricia Clarkson, disturbingly brilliant… or brilliantly disturbing) learns afterwards that it was not Grace who made the advances, as her husband had told her, but Chuck, she is meaner than ever. The men of Dogville pay visits to Grace often, and the kids almost celebrate gleefully by tolling the bell. Is he commenting on a society that glorifies sex at the expense of the woman? Whatever von Trier is doing, his portrait of small town America is cutting and, even worse, accurate.
At the end of the film, we learn that Grace was being angsty and was running away from her father. Her father is a gangster, with a slew of followers. When he comes by Dogville to rescue his daughter, essentially, their chat inside the car is as revealing about von Trier’s purpose as anything. James Caan, who it may be noted was in The Godfather, speaks of his daughter’s arrogance. “Arrogance”. It is an important part to this entire three hour opus that some critics have called “anti-American”. Grace’s generous, “think the way I think” contrasted against the town’s intolerance is a naked look at America’s both xenophobic tendencies as wells as its tendency to think less of others, but skew it in a way where we pity them. Grace’s father takes it a step further, almost acting like the trigger happy military and government the United States is known to have, and burns down the town of Dogville, shooting all of its inhabitants. This is just as powerful of an idea, but what matters more is the wakeup call he gives to his daughter about her “arrogance”, her judgment, and her condescension of others.
This is what von Trier is trying to say, trying to prove throughout the entire film. It is a biting commentary he provides, but the worst part is arguably the fact that he is, essentially, correct. Harsh though he may be, he is not wrong in evaluating the United States as a country that tries to present itself as more than willing to be helpful, but is at heart intolerant and xenophobic. He, like Jean-Luc Godard in Pierrot le Fou, has seen the United States bare its teeth.
Admittedly, Manderlay is most definitely the weaker of the two films, but this is probably due more to Bryce Dallas Howard’s unsatisfying performance as Grace more than a lot of the film’s flaws. (I bet Nicole Kidman regrets taking on that remake of The Stepford Wives, doesn’t she?) Another problem the film has is that it does not have nearly as much depth to it as Dogville had. At first, the allegory behind the parable sticks out like an eyesore, but nevertheless, Lars von Trier’s theatrical staging and stellar cast make it almost as entrancing of an experience.
After burning down the town of Dogville, Grace and her father (now played by Willem Dafoe, who would return in von Trier’s controversial Antichrist) happen upon a plantation in Alabama called Manderlay. Inside, slavery still persists, as rampant as ever, despite the year being 1933. When the matriarch dies (Lauren Bacall, who was also in Dogville), Grace takes it upon herself to free the slaves, give them contracts, and completely reform their society.
Again, sound a little familiar? Grace’s condescension reaches a new height, but the proselytizing that she does resembles a different aspect of the United States. This is the United States who goes to other countries, speaks of Democracy, and forces them to adhere to it whether they like it or not, whether they think democracy works for that society or not.
Grace does indeed take over, in a somewhat Orwellian, Animal Farm-esque way, forcing the ex-slaves to conform to her school of thought. There is also a book of rules, the Bible of the plantation called Mam’s Law, in which everything to run a plantation successfully is detailed. Unsurprisingly, Grace is disgusted at the things within the book. It also details how certain slaves fall into certain psychological states of mind. They can be clowns, proud, suck ups, etc.
Grace’s white guilt at the slavery whites subjected African Americans to is hardly new. They make films about that all the time! Remember The Help? Here, though, the white guilt is not used in the same manipulative way that the Help used it, to gain some semblance of sympathy of the “oh, I was wrong” sort. It is used to pint out how ridiculous it is that some people within the society should act, without much guilt of their own, holier than thou.
One could say that Manderlay might be a happier (well, no) or more merciful story or execution of similar ideas and themes in comparison to Dogville, because, again in comparison, there does not seem to be as much to talk about. There still is, regardless, it just does not overflow with ideas the way its predecessor did.
There is some curious talk of the death penalty, although in a very subtle way. I honestly was not expecting that from von Trier but I do not know why I was particularly surprised by it. While one little girl was sick with pneumonia and not eating, although to everyone else it appeared she was, an old lady had been taking the food from the young girl’s plate at night when no one was watching. When the girl dies, they find that the old woman had taken the food and there is a debate as to whether they should kill the woman or not. For Grace, who had been holding meetings as a demonstration of “the ballot” had taught them that she wants justice for them as much as anyone. Hence, the Death Penalty talk. The ethics of not only the supposed crime are discussed, but also as to whether the justice would actually be justice or simply pure revenge.
And in the end, von Trier’s slightly lesser Manderlay successfully leaves an impression on the viewer. For Mam’s Law, which had all the ghastly ordinances of the plantation set in stone, was not written by Mam at all, but the wise, patriarchal slave Wilhelm (Danny Glover). He called it the “lesser of two evils” and explained that maintaining slavery was the safer bet as he did not think that, after the Proclamation Declaration, America would be ready for blacks. Mam’s Law guaranteed certain rights and safety, etc. Obviously, this kind of commentary would strike a nerve in audiences. This is 1933 and it would still be another two and a half decades before the Civil Rights Era would fall upon the United States, where intolerance would still be just as rampant as ever.
Von Trier makes very powerful statements about race in this film, also using the theme of tolerance, or lack thereof, which was prevalent in Dogville. The film is dry, cutting, and fascinating and eerily accurate once again. Once again, he pushes the button of America evoking a stunning response.
Both of these films have been described as “anti-American”, which they are. And why shouldn’t they be? Americans have had their way with portraying other countries in less than favorable lights, and probably to an extent that is more obvious and hyperbolic than even von Trier. What von trier does in both of these films is not only criticize the United States harshly, but he actually holds up a mirror the United States and makes them realize what they do and what they have done, “our” hypocrisies. It is more than potent with David Bowie’s “Young Americans” playing over pictures of poverty stricken people (in Dogville) and scenes of violence from the Civil Rights Era (in Manderlay). Rather than take the perspective of “How dare a Danish director who has never been to our country criticize us!” it would be more fruitful to think of why he is making these criticisms. The nationalism gives way to our history of sweeping our country’s flaws under the rug to jumping to arbitrary defenses. As I said, Americans are just as guilty of never going to another country and then criticizing it. With its simple staging accentuating the character relationships and turning Thornton Wilder’s American classic of small town life on its head, its vicious commentary is all the more intriguing. Lars von Trier’s imaginative, challenging, and inventive style has quickly made him one of my favorite directors of all time.
Trailer for Dogville
Trailer for Manderlay