For those of us still trying to figure out whether Lars von Trier is a cinematic genius or a sadistic sicko, Manderlay (IFC Films) should provide evidence for both sides. Then again, the two categories are hardly mutually exclusive: Why can’t the Danish director be both a brilliant filmmaker and a loathsome creep? The answer, of course, is that he can and he is. But the trouble with Lars is that his films tend to suffer when he lets personal pathologies show through too nakedly. With Manderlay and its predecessor Dogville (2003), von Trier approaches the territory Alfred Hitchcock stumbled onto in Frenzy (1972), an artfully made but deeply unpleasant movie that included a disquietingly avid rape scene. Von Trier exposes more than he might have liked about his contempt for his actors, his audience, and the human race, and many viewers may walk out of the film wanting to return the favor.
The second entry in a projected “USA trilogy,” Manderlay is a kind of sequel to Dogville, though its allegorical storyline will be perfectly legible to those who skipped the earlier film. Hell, Manderlay’s allegorical storyline would be perfectly legible to a semicomatose stroke victim. Subtlety has never topped the list of von Trier’s concerns. His two best-known films in this country, Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000), were strangely hypnotic melodramas built around tour-de-force performances by Emily Watson and Björk. Some were offended by these films’ implicit vision of female suffering as a redemptive force, but even if you objected to their crudely manipulative final frames, you did so through a haze of tears. Manderlay, on the other hand, is curiously unmoving despite the extreme nature of its subject matter and the endless tricks it uses to keep us at its mercy.
As the film begins, Grace, the innocent heroine of Dogville (played there by Nicole Kidman, here by Bryce Dallas Howard), is driving with her gangster father (Willem Dafoe) across America—or rather, a map of America, drawn in black lines on a huge white roll of paper that will constitute the film’s entire set. (The earlier film also employed a schematic soundstage, using white lines on a blackboardlike backdrop.) It’s 1933, and as they cross the state line into Alabama, a young black woman rushes to intercept their car outside the gates of a plantation called Manderlay. (Any resemblance to the name of Laurence Olivier’s estate in Hitchcock’s Rebecca  is, no doubt, intentional but goes entirely unexplained.)
Manderlay, it seems, is a kind of racist Brigadoon, a place frozen nearly 70 years in the past, where the white mistress, Mam (Lauren Bacall), rules in a state of antebellum absolutism. After Mam dies, Grace, right-thinking white liberal that she is, chooses to stay at Manderlay to help “liberate” the freed slaves from their unenlightened ways and tutor them in the arts of democracy and economic independence. The results are predictably unsuccessful, but what’s unpredictable are the narrative gambits up von Trier’s sleeve, as he devises a plot designed to hold all the characters, black and white, under a moral microscope that leaves them exposed and squirming as the cowering hypocrites they are. The only character who gets off scot-free—who occupies, in essence, the Christ role that Björk and Emily Watson took on in their turn—is a little black girl named Claire (Wendy Juel), and I don’t want to tell you what kind of suffering she has to endure to get there.
If Dogville offered up a ham-fisted critique of “America” from a plane-phobic Dane who’s never visited the place, Manderlay ups the arrogance ante by bonking us on the head with supposedly searing “truths,” not only about our country but about its deepest and darkest wound: the institution of slavery and its aftermath. If I were African-American, I don’t know what I’d make of this film’s strange brew of Brechtian theater and thudding polemics—as in Dogville, John Hurt explains everything for you in an archly sarcastic voice-over—but I somehow doubt I’d be fiercely scribbling down its insights about race, sex, and exploitation. Wait, you mean some white people can’t tell black people apart? And some black men take advantage of the sexual mythology whites weave around them? Von Trier wants to skewer the character of Grace for the daily “democracy lessons” she offers the skeptical plantation workers, but his own pedagogical intentions are no less condescending.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Manderlay is how poorly von Trier treats his actors, who are so bludgeoned by the concept and the format they can scarcely breathe. Though it’s 40 minutes shorter than Dogville, this film suffers from a similar airlessness. The usually striking Chloe Sevigny is so muffled, I was startled to notice her name in the final credits. Even Danny Glover as Wilhelm, the kindly old slave (or is he?) seems stiff and inexpressive. And poor Bryce Dallas Howard, fresh from the dopey dystopia of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004), finds herself trapped in yet another high-concept Land of the Lost. Nicole Kidman notoriously withdrew from her commitment to star in the rest of von Trier’s trilogy after walking out of a screening of Dogville at Cannes, saying it was “too exposing.” Though Howard has a lovely, tomboyish presence that’s reminiscent of a younger Juliette Lewis, you never forget that she’s von Trier’s second-choice date to the prom.
In between Dogville and Manderlay, von Trier took a break from tin-eared policy analysis to make The Five Obstructions, a fascinating documentary about a filmic experiment he conducted with the older Danish director Jørgen Leth. Leth agreed to remake his 1967 experimental short The Perfect Human five times, each time obeying a different set of von Trier’s aesthetic and technical “obstructions” (forcing him to re-create the film first in Cuba, then as an animated cartoon, etc.). Late in the film, Leth reads aloud from a text written by von Trier, in which he thanks “dear Lars” for coming up with the obstructions: “They’ve shown me what I really am, an abject, human human.” At the end of Manderlay, von Trier seems to be awaiting such a testimonial from his characters, his actors, and, most disturbingly, his audience: Thanks, dear Lars, for exposing us as the abject scum we are. But where the power struggle between the two artists in The Five Obstructions was a clever mind game, full of irony and wit, the matchup between von Trier and “America” in Manderlay is predetermined from the start, a sucker’s game. I’m still interested to see what von Trier will do next as a filmmaker, but this time around, I’m not saying uncle.