Let the Games Begin: A Reevaluation of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games
A couple years ago, I wrote a scathing review of the American remake of Michael Haneke’s thriller Funny Games (which will henceforth be known as Funny Games US). The brilliant performances from Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as poor rich people being tortured by a couple of lunatics played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet notwithstanding, its smugness and overt message condemning audiences for enjoying sadistic violence was a major turn off. It was a task sitting through it, an absolute nightmare in a way. But, you could say, Haneke achieved his goal. However, after avoiding Haneke’s films for a bit, and not bothering to watch the original 1997 Austrian film, I decided once and for all to delve into the Austrian director’s work. After watching Cache, The Piano Teacher, and The White Ribbon, I decided, because I loved the ambiguity, intensity, and subversiveness of those films, I’d give the original Funny Games a go. I was not, however, expecting much. Haneke’s 2007 Funny Games US was a shot for shot remake of his original film, only in English and with new actors. Having explored Haneke’s work a bit more thoroughly and having grown more mature in my tastes, not only does Haneke rank amongst my new favorite directors (subsection: “provocateur”, next to Lars von Trier), I’ve had a change of heart about both Funny Games. That does not, however mean that I love the film, or even like it more than I did. It’s honestly hard to make up one’s mind about a film that has so much fun and takes so much pleasure in serving up a wretched dish to its audience in such a knowing way. Nevertheless, I do appreciate it more than I did. But why? Well…
All in the Family
Michael Haneke has a lot to say about things. Just things in general. And while his opinion of the upper middle class and the bourgeoisie doesn’t occupy the viewer’s mind for long, due to, um, other events, what he says is just as scathing as his message about violence (which is what I will get to later). Only a certain kind of people would play a music game in the car by quizzing one another on what operatic piece is playing. Is it Mahler? No, Wagner. Or maybe… This version of fun and games certainly occupies the mainstream music listener, but as casual as the family in the film does it (in the Austrian film, the parents are played by Susanne Lothar and Ullrich Muhe), there very act itself reeks of pretension. Haneke gives us a close up of the dozen or so CDs in the car, and while the family enjoys their ride with their expensive boat to their expensive lake house, Haneke cuts short the elegiac bliss and drowns the audiences ears’ in what could be assumed to be screamo. This harsh juxtaposition is like a scale. Opera is considered one of the high arts; screamo, within most circles, is usually written off by “that kind of people” as “noise”. But within the mainstream circle, both would be ignored; thus the scale. They’re both two extremes of the same medium. (I bet if Haneke had waited a few years to remake his film, he might use Skrillex.)
When the family get to their lake house, they enter through a gate, a clear sign that these people are not the ninety-nine percent. But that gate seems to hint at the fact that their lake house not only gates them from, you know, strangers, but gates their lives off from other people. Their lives seem so insular with that gate in place. Their lake house doesn’t look like a nice little cottage by the lake. It looks like a two story house. That you live in. Another spit in the face. While Haneke may be smarmy about the upper class, he has a lot more headed for them than they could ever expect.
The Fabulous Sociopathic Boys
The boys look like clean cut gold caddies in a way, which is a little ironic. They do not look completely out of place in the large, wealthy lake houses they break into, but they also don’t look like they were born there or were there in the first place. These sociopaths, though, are your worst nightmare. Not only because they relish the great violence and torture they cause, but because they look “just like you”, albeit younger and maybe snarkier. A lot of horror films stress the “it could be your neighbor” element, but with very little purpose other than hypothetical paranoia in comparison to these two psychopaths. Haneke seems to be saying, “They are your neighbors. And you know why? Because the media has created them.” I mean, where else would they have gotten the ideas for the sick games they play from other than video games, the news, and, yes, the movies.
Even their dialogue has the bounce and rhythm of other writers, like Hawks and Hecht, the banter resembling kind of a slash version of Bringing Up Baby. They’re fairly young, so they are the target audience. They are, essentially, you. Yes, my friends, Haneke is making the audience the culprit. And how he relishes doing that. I am not sure, however, whether or not he enjoys the game itself or the players more.
As “torturous” of an experience it is to watch Funny Games, most of the violence is suggested. And yet that still doesn’t seem to help. The violence is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of the film. Even though most of the violence happens off screen, the audience still squirms even though they aren’t watching Hostel or Saw or even Oldboy. And yet they salivate and yearn, unsatisfied with only hearing the screams from the mother, the groans from the father, and the whimpers from their child. Not only that, but here, the violence is real. Or it seems real, too real. Subverting audience expectation is something I’ve become accustomed to when it comes to Haneke. With the ridiculousness of torture porn, it seems so outrageous that it’s just a gross out cliché. However, these so-called funny games are ones that are probably more emotionally savage than physically. Yes, the father’s knee cap is basically hammered in by a 9-iron, but the mother must play “The Loving Wife”. This game involves poor Anna, where she must recite a prayer forward and backwards (clearly mocking religion) flawlessly or her husband will be killed (either with the gun or the knife; it’s her choice). And another game, where she has to undress herself. And another game, where they put the son’s head in a canvas sack. These aren’t just random, elaborate torture devices Jigsaw would use, but truly terribly, emotionally and spiritually scarring tasks that are so diabolical because they are so incredibly simple. It’s all in the simplicity of the thing, and simplicity serves up the realism in a large portion. Why don’t they just kill them? As one of the boys says, “You can’t forget the importance of entertainment.”
However, the problem I had with the films lies in the violence itself, and it isn’t just the violence that makes the film interesting, but also its presentation. These are horrible things happening to good people. And Haneke, all the while, enjoys this. He enjoys seeing his audience both repulsed and gripped by such acts of terror. And what he’s saying, obviously, is that we are terrible people for loving it so much and for loving violence so much. The games are real, and Haneke is playing a game on the audience, not just with this upper class family. But because he enjoys it so much, doesn’t that make him just as complicit as his audience? Isn’t Haneke just as guilty of the loathsome enjoyment of violence as we are, or as any fan of horror? How does on reconcile smugness with what is clearly a grippingly and fascinatingly terrifying film? In his other films, he explores people under pressure, just as he does here, but in other situations. Someone is watching a family; someone wants to act on sexual fantasies after years of repression; more brutal things are happening but in a small German town. But with those films, as subtle as he may or may not be, depending from film to film, there isn’t as much of the impression that he is plainly slapping you in the face and laughing all the while. He subverts audience expectation, but he does not go out of his way to rub it in the audience’s faces. He makes the audience a culprit in voyeurism, but you don’t realize it until after, unlike Funny Games where you clearly know what’s going on, why, and by whom. I guess the ability to forgive Haneke for this arrogance and, I hate to say it, pretension will vary from person to person. I, for one, am still on the fence.
Smashing Down Fourth Wall
Breaking the fourth wall is an act of intrusiveness. It takes you out of the escapism and makes the experience of whatever is going on very immediate. It sometimes is used as a way to connect to the audience and to familiarize the audience with a character’s voice, like Alvy Singer in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, but here, the fourth wall is knocked down partly out of smugness and partly, once again, to show how reckless and tasteless of a society we’ve become. The two sociopaths every so often wink or talk directly to the audience, which seems unorthodox. Generally, you would think that if a character were to break the fourth wall, it would be one we could either connect to or root for. However, because the thesis of Funny Games is mostly “condemn the audience” and because the sociopaths are an extreme incarnation of “us”, Haneke subverts the aforementioned cliché, making us identify, unwillingly, to the torturers. Although villains certainly have broken the fourth wall in the past, it’s not usually in as much of a self-conscious way, and when they do, it’s because they have appeal and they are the villain we kind of love or love to hate. They are our id that we don’t mind acknowledging. The sociopaths, however, reveal a side of human nature that’s more terrible than we want to admit. Haneke’s other films have explored, to some extent, the terrible things humans can do, but Funny Games rings more poisonous because we don’t want to identify that we could do these kinds of things. We barely even want to acknowledge that there’s a preening yuppie in all of us, never mind our ability to rake a gold club and whack someone with it. Generally, it’s Lars von Trier who likes to slap society in the face with his art films, blatantly but in an expert way. Just look at his biting allegory of America in Dogville and Manderlay. Haneke has no trouble, however, doing that as well.
The painful thing is that these boys control this environment. Not only do the break the fourth wall, they also break the laws of reality. In one scene, where the mother takes a lone shotgun by the coffee table and kills one of the sociopaths, the other searches everywhere he can for the remote control. When he finds it, he pushes rewind, and like a videocassette, the events are rewound and then play is hit. This time, he knows what she’s going to grab for. In this way, it’s extremely frustrating to watch this film. If the villains have the control, why bother watching if there’s no hope for these people? And why, as a matter of fact, do we keep watching after that happens? Again, Haneke points out our blood lust as well as our tolerance for violence.
One chilling image is of a lone television screen displaying a NASCAR race or something like it. Pedestrian though it may be, the television screen is covered and dripping in blood. This image stays on the screen for probably thirty seconds or maybe longer. What’s the point? The desensitization of society. We, as a world culture, have gotten so used to seeing violent images in films, games, the news, TV shows, etc. that it is completely commonplace. Blood seems a little out of place for a motor car race, but that’s the point. No matter how out of place the blood would be, we would still be used to it, barely even phased by its presence. This, I feel, is the most chilling, and most accurate, statement that Haneke makes in the film.
The Circle of Life and Death
At the end of the film, it’s revealed that the boys came directly from the neighbors next door, whom they’d been torturing. And after they’re done with this family, they’re going to start right back up with another. As one of the boys approaches, asking for eggs (a sign from before that the games are about to begin), we understand that it’s all just a vicious circle. That point being that violence, both in the natural world as well as the audience’s compliance, is cyclical. While stopping by your neighbors and torturing them is hardly normal, the dark side of human nature, however, is. In a way, the end, signaling the beginning, is almost like Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, a novel that expounds upon the cyclical nature of revenge and love. Horror films will be made, audiences will go in droves, the feast will continue, and begin again the next time. It’s an unpleasant thought, but true nonetheless. Atrocities will occur in the real word, people will watch the news in shock and awe, and then something else will happen garnering similar coverage and, of course, similar ratings.
All in the Shot for Shot
One could say that making one Funny Games, the Austrian one, is bad enough. But, eye rolls must commence when a foreign film gets an American remake. From the disgustingly sappy City of Angels remade from Wim Wender’s existential symphony Wings of Desire to the remake of Godard’s Breathless by Jim McBride, American remakes of foreign films usually garner scorn and bad reviews. (Not always though, for every failure there’s a Magnificent Seven or Let Me In or even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) However, Funny Games US is directed by Haneke himself. What’s more, it’s a shot for shot remake, meaning that every shot from his 1997 film is duplicated here. Unnecessary? That may be up to you, but in remaking Funny Games, he took a film that had pretty much world wide appeal and then focused it, aiming it directly at Americans. For, who else than we to come up with something as gruesome as The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, and, of course, Saw? And who other than Americans to make Saw a franchise. One film may have one thing, but seven. What kind of people are we? It’s been noted that our rating system is harsher on sex than violence, while the ratings board in Europe is harsher on violence. Why is that? Why are we so okay with seeing violence? It might be a part of human nature, but what’s with all the reveling and “okay-ness” about it. There are video games, which are an easy target (no pun intended). The thing about the US is that we are slowly losing are ability to truly differentiate between fantasy and reality, especially regarding violence. Violence in film is getting more real, and violence in reality is becoming more prolific and ubiquitous.
But I haven’t addressed the shot for shot thing. In 1998, Gus van Sant remade Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho pretty much shot for shot. He said he did it “so no one would have to”. The point also was that duplicating every scene and every shot would not create a perfect replica of the original. Even if you like van Sant’s Psycho, there is no denying it is a lesser film in comparison to Hitchcock’s. Even though, it’s basically the same thing. When Haneke is remaking his film, not only is he basically articulating the same thing, but he also seems to be making a small statement on American remakes of foreign films. While he may not be ushering Park Chan-wook to take the reigns over from Spike Lee for the new Oldboy remake, he does seem to say that American remakes are, essentially, lazy and generally not exercises of artistry or creativity (again, exceptions notwithstanding, like A Fistful of Dollars). Learn to read subtitles and get over yourselves. But, who knows? Maybe Kurosawa will rise from the grave, destroy all prints of The Outrage and remake Rashomon himself.
To me, it doesn’t really matter. Although the Austrian original has more of a worldwide appeal with its content, I’ve become fond of having America getting told off through art. The performances in both films are outstanding and so painful to watch, they are what give the film the most potency. They are both technically proficient, of course, with long takes and static shots. But because they are shot for shot, they kind of blend together in the mind from time to time. The biggest thing I can say to you is see at least one of them. It doesn’t particularly matter which (thus the main failure on Haneke’s point, for neither are terribly distinctive enough to differentiate a whole hell of a lot). While the films may be smug in their condemnation of a sector of society that kind of enjoys this stuff, the potency of its message, its presentation, and execution are pretty flawless. It’s a horror film that creates real fear that the average slasher can’t. It seduces you in the most despicable way, seemingly to prove its very point. It makes you relinquish control completely from the situation. It makes your identify with terrible people. And, yes, it plays minds games with you. You know, Funny Games.
2012 in Film: #111 – #160
111. Tokyo Drifter (1966) | Directed by Seijun Suzuki – B+
112. Branded to Kill (1967) | Directed by Seijun Suzuk – B
113. Alien3: Work Print Cut (1992) | Directed by David Fincher – B+
114. Tiny Furniture (2008) | Directed by Lena Dunham – B-
115. Alien3: Theatrical Cut (1992) | Directed by David Fincher – C
116. Alien: Resurrection (1997) | Directed by Jean-Pierre jeunet – C+
117. Everything Must Go (2010) | Directed by Dan Rush – A-
118. The Seventh Seal (1957) | Directed by Ingmar Bergman – A
119. Cinema Verite (2011) | Directed by Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini – C
120. Shame (2011) | Directed by Steve McQueen – B
121. America Graffiti (1973) | Directed by George Lucas – A
122. Fatal Attraction (1987) | Directed by Adrian Lyne – A-
123. Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) | Directed by Charles Reisner – A-
124. The Last Metro (1980) Directed by François Truffaut – A
125. Spy Kids (2001) | Directed by Robert Rodriguez – B
126. Help! (1965) | Directed by Richard Lester – D+
127. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) | Directed by Ingmar Bergman – A-
128. The Terminator (1984) | Directed by James Cameron – B
129. Our Hospitality (1923) | Directed by John G. Blystone and Buster Keaton – A-
130. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) | Directed by Robert Wiene – A
131. Secret Sunshine (2007) | Directed by Lee Chang-dong – A
132. Mary and Max (2007) | Directed by Adam Eliot – B
133. Submarine (2010) | Directed by Richard Ayoade – B+
134. I Am Legend (2007) | Directed by Francis Lawrence – B
135. Mouse Hunt (1997) | Directed by Gore Verbinski – B+
136. The Avengers (2012) | Directed by Joss Whedon – B+
137. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962) | Directed Robert Enrico – B
138. Citizen Kane (1941) | Directed by Orson Welles – A
139. The People vs. George Lucas (2010) | Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe – B
140. Outrage (2009) | Directed by Kirby Dick – B
141. The Lady Eve (1941) | Directed by Preston Sturgess – B+
142. Manderlay (2005) | Directed by Lars von Trier – B+
143. Dancer in the Dark (2000) | Directed by Lars con Trier – A+
144. Jules and Jim (1962) | Directed by François Truffaut – B+
145. The Exterminating Angel (1962) | Directed by Luis Buñuel – B+
146. Friends with Benefits (2011) | Directed by Will Gluck – C+
147. Lars and the Real Girl (2007) | Directed by Craig Gilespie – A
148. FreeDogme (2000) | Directed by Roger Narbonne – B
149. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) | Directed by Joe Johnston – C
150. Blue Valentine (2010) | Directed by Derek Cianfrance – A
151. The Element of Crime (1984) | Directed by Lars von Trier – A-
152. Tranceformer: A Potrait of Lars von Trier (1997) | Directed by Stig Bjorkman – B+
153. Epidemic (1987) | Directed by Lars von Trier – D
154. Europa (1991) | Directed by Lars von Trier – A-
155. Do the Right Thing (1989) | Directed by Spike Lee – B
156. Heavenly Creatures (1994) | Directed by Peter Jackson – A-
157. Delicatessen (1991) | Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet – A-
158. An Andalusian Dog (1929) | Directed by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí – B+
159. Zéro de Conduite (1933) | Directed by Jean Vigo – B+
160. The Navigator (1924) | Directed by Donald Crisp and Buster Keaton – A
This Land is Your Land: A Look at Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” and “Manderlay”
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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
This entry was posted in drama, Take One and tagged Antichrist, black comedy, Breaking the Waves, Bryce Dallas Howard, Chloe Sevigny, commentary, Dancer in the Dark, Danny Glover, Dogville, drama, Lars von Trier, Lauren Bacall, Manderlay, Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, satire, The Idiots, Udo Kier.