Manderlay picks up with the lead character of Dogville, Grace Mulligan, driving across country with her gangster father and his band of tommy-gun-toting thugs. Luckily, this time, Grace is played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who, in spite of being Ron Howard's daughter, is a reasonably decent actress. In Dogville, the part was played by a trained cocker spaniel, which really didn't help the role.
As in the first film, this one is shot on a soundstage with white outlines representing buildings and only a few sparse props. The theatrical staging is matched by a very stagey acting style and a folksy voiceover narrator who likes to use the word "nigger."
Which is one of the many, many, many things about this film that are designed to offend and put off audiences around the world, and especially here in the good ol' U S of A. See, it seems that Mr. von Trier wants to say as many bad things about America as he can in the course of a film, and then he wants to do it again and again. Actually, I've heard that when he finishes with this trilogy, he's planning a prequel trilogy that will show how the United States became an Evil Empire, and that Grace's father is really Warren G. Harding.
But von Trier is so hard on America that it's like he has a crush on us. I mean, would you spend six years of your life paying attention to someone you hated? If von Trier's efforts at making the "USA--Land of Opportunity" were a TV sitcom, at the end of it, he'd turn to America and say, "Because I can't stop thinking about you," and she'd say, "You awful, infuriating, impossible, wonderful, wonderful man!" And then they'd smooch.
Unfortunately, von Trier has indefinitely postponed the third part, so we may never get to the making up. Instead, we get Manderlay, which is so brutal in its condemnation of virtually everyone that it's hard to see what the point is. The plot is clever: Grace discovers that there is a plantation where the slaves were never freed. She and her gangster cronies do the freeing by force and then find that life isn't so easy, and liberty isn't the great gift she thought it would be.
So Grace stays to oversee the workings of the plantation, and in the process learns that being the great white savior is not without some moral, emotional and physical risks.
All well and good, and it's nice that someone tried to make a story about oppression that wasn't black and white. The freed slaves of Manderlay are just as untrustworthy as the whites who enslaved them, and the goings-on at the plantation hinge around an awful secret that implicates just about everyone.
But in telling this story, von Trier wanted to get inside Grace's head. To do this, he uses a voiceover narrator who seems to be omniscient, but who takes on the emotional state and the darkest thoughts that Grace is having. So in a very white, very old-man, very knowing voice, the narrator describes the "burning" in Grace's "loins" as she looks at the "black flesh" of the workers. And as Grace reads the rulebook of the plantation's old owner, the narrator talks about the "seven different kinds of niggers."
Things just get worse from there as von Trier plays with pretty much every stereotype of both African Americans and white Americans in their relations to African Americans. The whole thing becomes so heavy-handed in its abusive and unrewarding content that I can't really imagine who would want to see this film.
Still, I can't say it's poorly made, as the technique is truly ingenious. The intimate, hand-held camera work is dotted with jump cuts that enhance the horror of the scenes. The bare sets and declamatory speaking styles do the same, and in spite of the artificiality of the performances, the emotions somehow come across as more real and more unpleasant.
But the writing is so grindingly negative, and so devoid of any sympathy, that it ultimately begins to seem inhuman. I imagine that this is how hyper-evolved, morally saintly space aliens would see earthlings: as thoroughly petty, unpleasant and deceitful. But I'm not sure where von Trier gets off, because last I checked, he was still human.
And while he implicates everyone in his story, he doesn't seem to implicate himself. The authorial voice, if it can be found at all, seems to be standing above and passing judgment. It's on this point that von Trier ceases to be an artist and takes on the role of moralizing scold, and if there's one thing America is now thoroughly sick of, it's moralizing scolds.