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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Manderlay (2005)


Sorry this is late, Doug came over for a few days and we’d rather play video games than watch a film where John Hurt narrates sex scenes together.

I am not joking, him narrating the main character’s dalliance and her sexual feelings is one of the most awkward things that I have ever had to sit through.

It was so awkward.

I had to stop watching for a while, it got so awkward.

While Dogville was more ambiguous in the points and commentary that it was making, Manderlay is very explicit in what it’s talking about and the general moral of the film.

That being that America was, and still is, hostile to black people and that the impact of slavery has lasted past the end of the American Civil War in both economic practices and cultural memes passed on by both whites and blacks.

The former of these is both shown and explained explicitly.

Like in the last film, there is a major philosophical debate between Grace and her father. Well, actually there are two, one about women and their sexual fantasies, and the other is about the capability of the people of Manderlay (particularly the black people of Manderlay) to adjust to the new realities of post Civil War America.

(Quick side note, both Grace and her father are played by different, younger actors. In Grace’s case it’s because Nicole Kidman had stuff on and Lars von Trier was too impatient to delay filming for her. Also, he had Danny Glover and Kidman’s great, but c’mon, Danny Glover.

In her father’s? I really have no idea. James Caan did a fine job before, maybe this is just the bias that the industry has against older men in action? Who can say?)

Okay, actor stuff out of the way, back to the meat and bones of this film.

During a short break in their journey (which I must remind you they’re on because they razed Dogville to the ground and murdered all of its human inhabitants), a woman emerges from Manderlay asking for help because someone is going to be whipped. When asked about this, she explains that the black inhabitants of the plantation are slaves.

Grace, as a liberal socialite, is horrified by this and has her reluctant father intervene.

I think it would be easy to dismiss her father as a racist, but his role in the philosophical debate is basically to argue that man is a base and corrupt being so -- huh, he’s basically Satan from Old Harry’s Game and Grace is basically the Professor.

Well, this just goes to show you that the same basic philosophical concepts can be presented in very different ways.

Anyway, the point is, when a character has a low opinion of everyone (including himself) as a representation of a philosophical position, concentrating on a single concern can and often will render them completely useless as a rhetorical device.

So the gangsters swarm the plantation and stop the whipping.

It’s at this point that we meet Wilhelm, who is probably the closest thing this film has to a male lead. He’s basically the voice of the people of Manderlay.

Well, the black people of Manderlay, because the white people of it are barely characters at all once the matriarch dies at the beginning of the film.

She is called Mam (although I am uncertain if this is her name or her title) and she hangs over the entire film like a spectre with her Law, which is how the plantation has been run for the last seventy years.

Interestingly enough, this law is codified in a book that Mam asks Grace to burn at the beginning of the film and Grace refuses to do so, not knowing what the book contained at the time and believing that it could be used to prosecute the white owners.

After the gangsters intervene in the plantation, Grace’s father lays out a common scenario that occurred seventy years before.

The owners of the plantations would offer employment to their former slaves, they’d set up stores for them and, worst of all, offer them loans. All of this would keep them trapped in the same fundamental situation that they were in before, but with the title of freedom.

Initially Grace rejects this, but soon sees the beginnings of this exact scenario take place with her own eyes. This spurs her into deciding to stick around and oversee the transition of Manderlay from pre-Civil War relic to modern and vibrant bastion of freedom.

This more or less puts Grace in the same role that Thomas had in Dogville, the idealist who seeks to prove a point about human nature while offering assistance to the needy.

The primary difference between the two is that, while Grace is seeking to prove a point, she’s primarily motivated by a desire to help rather than using it as a teaching moment.

However, just because her motives are pure, it doesn’t mean that she’s any better being helpful.

Two major examples of this are when she mixes up two young men while trying to be helpful and when she seeks to punish the white family for their lack of progress in not being shitty people by putting them in black face.

To be fair, she does see the error of her ways after both of these events, but … she still made these errors in the first place. Her good will doesn’t magically not make her a product of her background and time, where hurting black people was normalised to an extent that seems cartoonish to our eyes. (Better doesn’t mean ideal, though.)

There’s a lot more to the film than just these things, there’s even a reveal at the end that changes the way that the rest of the film is viewed. Hell, rewatching with this information at hand would probably be a worthwhile experience that would make the many layers of the story more clear and provoke further thought.

I’d do this, but this movie is two hours long and I am already past my deadline.

There is one last thing that I feel bears mentioning.

This involves discussion of sexual assault, so if this is an issue for you Ctrl+F to the next instance of the word ‘prevalence’.

I was trying to find out if the Mansi/Munsi were real or invented by von Trier as a narrative device, and I kept seeing things that called the only two person sex scene in the film ‘rape’.

Now, there is definitely a case to be made that this is exactly what it was. However, since one of the two places I saw this was a review by a white supremacist, I’m gonna have to explain what my problem with using that label without going into the full context of the scene.

The scene is between Grace and a guy she’s been attracted to throughout the whole film called Timothy. It is an awkward sex scene, and while Grace doesn’t seem to enjoy it all that much, she did go willingly with him.

The reason that I am saying that there is definitely a case to be made that this was rape is that Grace’s attraction to him was, in large part, due to him misrepresenting his background and his character.

If you are unfamiliar with this concept, it is known as ‘rape by deception’. Some will argue that it’s technically not rape, but it’s certainly very sleazy behaviour either way.

Personally, I do consider this to be a form of rape.

However, the reason that I am bringing this up at all is because Grace isn’t the only woman that Timothy bedded with this misrepresentation. He’s done it before, including with Flora, Grace’s first point of contact with Manderlay.

I feel like not mentioning that he’s deceived at least one black woman in the same way he deceived a white woman is misrepresentative and irresponsible.

Mostly because I get the sneaking suspicion that if he was a white man, this full context would be brought up as a mitigating factor.

Okay, that’s done now, let’s get back to the general review points by repeating the word ‘prevalence’.

If there’s one thing that confuses me about this movie, it’s that, while Dogville and the events there are referenced, Grace doesn’t seem to have actually learned anything from them.

She, of all people, should understand that just because someone offers you help it doesn’t make them trustworthy.

It just seems a bit weird that these experiences don’t get worked into the narrative more.

Overall, though, Manderlay is a complex film about a complex subject. It doesn’t present solutions so much as it does raise questions and challenge the viewer and their assumptions.

Like Dogville, this is a hard film to watch, and, like Dogville, you will feel betrayed by the characters.

Including Grace.

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