The Mindful Bard—Dogville and Manderlay

What has Lars von Trier been trying to tell us about America?

Film: Dogville

Writer/Director: Lars Von Trier

Film: Manderlay

Writer/Director: Lars Von Trier

This won’t include a retrospective of Von Trier’s filmography, or a precis of his many scandalous faux pas, or a list of his film scenes that have lead to the most walk-outs.  For now, I’m only going to talk about two of his films, Dogville and its sequel Manderlay, which address a complex of raw inner truths that populist America can never accept.

These two films suggest that Von Trier either has a mean old hate-on for America or he loves the nation so much he’s devoted himself to scrutinising it until its faults practically glow neon.  But which faults, exactly, is he picking up on? Certainly not the mundane and oft-repeated weaknesses — poor education, high infant mortality, bad taste, and political naïveté — but rather the deeper moral rift from which America’s social ills have sprung like evils from Pandora’s box.

The productions take place in deliciously dark and minimal theatre sets marked off with chalk lines on the floor that represent walls, streets, and gardens.  (It looks like the actors are walking around on a huge elaborate game of hopscotch in the middle of the night.) The technique is perfect for getting to the essence of the story without distractions, and you find yourself sucked into the experience as if it were your own.

In the first film, Dogville, we’re introduced to Grace Margaret Mulligan, a beautiful, elegant, soft-spoken young woman on the run from we know not what.  She has escaped to Dogville, Colorado, a typical rural community, and throws herself on the mercy of the humble townsfolk, begging them to shelter her.

After careful deliberation they accept her, and she becomes their little ray of sunshine — kind, hardworking, and helpful.  The people look all warm and fuzzy for rescuing the hapless girl, and she’s duly grateful and amenable.  But when one citizen discovers that there’s a large reward for Grace’s capture, the avaricious spirit awakens and changes the way residents see their foster child.  They begin to demand a higher and higher price from Grace in exchange for not betraying her to the authorities.  She’s given more and more work.  The work becomes nastier.  Eventually she’s violated, then punished for the sins of her violators.  Finally she’s betrayed.

What the people of Dogville don’t know is that the gentle Grace has the power to exact a terrible punishment on evildoers.

In the second film, Manderlay, Grace, having been rescued by her powerful gangster father, is driving past a large mansion when a shabbily dressed black woman emerges from the gates and waves down the car.  She asks to speak directly to Grace, and tells her that one of the slaves inside Manderlay, the plantation, is being whipped for a crime he didn’t commit.

Grace tries to explain that slavery has ended, but she soon sees that in this particular place it most certainly has not.  She decides to stay on, keeping her father’s best lawyer and henchmen with her to help grant the slaves their freedom.  She forces the white family to work with the slaves as equals and works alongside them herself trying to create financial stability.

When she finds out the ugly truth about Manderlay Grace becomes a monster.  Horrified at her own cruelty and certain now that Manderlay can’t be saved — and that she herself has been its undoing—she flees on foot.

Grace is a significant role, requiring an actress able to exude both a disarmingly vulnerable fragility  (she’s played masterfully, both by Nicole Kidman in Dogville and then by Bryce Dallas Howard in Manderlay) along with a fierce determination and a faith in the basic goodness of humanity, despite crushing evidence to the contrary.

Some have remarked that after what Grace endured in the first film it’s hard to believe she can retain her fierce idealism and commitment to social justice, not to mention her sanity.  But these critics don’t get that Grace is not a human being; she’s rather entirely symbolic, representing a tragic American innocence that can never die — it can only continue falling on the thorns of life and bleeding, repeatedly resurrecting itself to push ahead with its righteous agenda and leaving sinners to perish in her wake.  As her name suggests, Grace is at once a kindly dove offering redemption and an avenging angel for those who refuse it.

But Grace is dependent on her criminal father to protect her, defend her, support her, and come to her rescue, just as in America the passion for social justice, with its belief in essential human goodness, is sustained by criminal activity.  (As we’ve seen time and time again, nearly every piece of high-flown rhetoric gets much of its steam from underhanded moneymakers and might in fact not exist without them.)

Grace’s Irish mafia boss father, also symbolic, seems the wisest of them all, smiling fearlessly into reality as if he’d made peace with it long ago.

Dogville and Manderlay represent an intellectual examination of America which populist America, in its astounding moral blindness, will have a hard time accepting.

Dogville and Manderlay manifest five of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing:

  • They pose and admirably respond to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence;
  • They stimulate my mind;
  • They display an engagement with and a compassionate response to suffering;
  • They make me want to be a better artist;
  • They make me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.