Tuesday, November 15, 2005

MANDERLAY – Lars is a whole lot dumber than he thinks he is

When Lars von Trier made the movie, THE IDIOT, the advertising slogan was “You are a whole lot dumber than you think.” Well, people who live in glass houses should avoid throwing stones. But before we get to my thoughts on his latest movie, MANDERLAY, I must confess that, for the first time in my life, I actually walked out of the screening of MANDERLAY at the London Film Festival. So what follows is not a review but a “coming to terms” with why I did this. But first, some context…..

Lars von Trier is a film-maker who has consciously created a persona as a bad boy auteur who is tough to work with but produces controversial uncompromising works of art.
His need to create a high profile began from the earliest days when he inserted the “von” into his plain old name and took his first full length feature, THE ELEMENT OF CRIME to Cannes in 1985. He deservedly won the Technical Prize for the film’s amazing cinematography and the accomplished use of old-fashioned visual effects and colouring. But this was not enough for Trier who was furious not to have won the Palme d’Or and has had a difficult (and highly publicised) bad relationship with Cannes ever since. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, Trier was the master of old-fashioned (no denigration intended) film techniques and mastered every aspect of the art of cinematography. This was particularly evident in ZENTROPA, sometimes known as EUROPA, EUROPA, released in 1991. Partly filmed in black and white, Zentropa used back screen projection and all sorts of other “lost techniques” to resurrect an ethereal and sinister post-war Germany. Once again, the film won the Cannes Technical Prize, and indeed, the Jury award, but failed to get the Palme d’Or. Trier literally gave the jury the finger.

Perhaps because he was so sick of getting labelled as a technical master, or perhaps because he was just bored, in 1995 Trier got together with some other directors and came up with the DOGME school of film-making. The idea was to strip film of everything but the camera and the actor. No artificial lighting, no artificial sets, to costumes, improvised dialogue, handheld cameras, no special effects. Not a bad plan, but rather than execute it, Trier continued to film his hysterical spoof-thriller/horror TV series,
KINGDOM HOSPITAL and went off to make the superb BREAKING THE WAVES. It must have rankled when Trier’s stable-mate, Thomas Vintenberg, beat him to it and released the first and most highly acclaimed Dogme movie, FESTEN, rather stealing Trier’s thunder. The stripped down shooting style perfectly suited this story of a family anniversary party ruined by accusations of incest. This didn’t stop Trier making his own Dogme film – THE IDIOT. This was, in my opinion, less successful than Festen, and once again, as with Breaking the Waves, was nominated for, but did not win, the Palme d’Or.

So is Trier the Martin Scorsese of European cinema? No. By and large, I think the Cannes jury has correctly praised his technical skill, and usually, better films have won the Palme d’Or. Even when Trier’s most complete film
BREAKING THE WAVES lost, it was beaten by the marginally better SECRETS AND LIES from Mike Leigh. By contrast, Scorsese always loses the Best Film Oscar to terrible movies viz. the sublime GOODFELLAS losing to the abysmal DANCES WITH WOLVES in 1991. (Cue another essay on why democracy does not work when it comes to adjudicating film awards…)

So, Trier had failed to conquer Cannes with his technical masterpieces and had failed to wow the world with Dogme. So now he decided to produce
DANCER IN THE DARK, a lavish musical starring, improbably, Bjork and Catherine Deneuve. The kicker was that this was a thinly disguised critique on the capitalism, the treatment of immigrants in America and the injustice of the American legal system. Now, I absolutely love Dancer in the Dark. I do not agree with all its political points, but I do think that they are made in an intelligent and original way and most of all, they do not overwhelm the emotional heart of the story. I admire Dancer in the Dark a lot, but I also find it entertaining in part, and emotionally involving to the point of tears in others. Finally, Trier had cracked the code, and had won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2000, beating off stiff competition from another Pantheon movie, Wong Kar Wei’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE.

What did Trier do next? He made too of the most polemical diatribes ever seen in a mutliplex
DOGVILLE and now MANDERLAY. Both are filmed in quasi-Dogme style. They are shot in bare studios with no set and few props. Where buildings and cars and trees should be they are marked out with masking tape on the floor. Let’s take DOGVILLE first. Nicole Kidman plays Grace, who has run away from her gangster father and is taken in by the good people of Dogville. It is the Great Depression and times are tough and the villagers soon start abusing Grace as a manual labourer and finally sexually. No doubt Trier meant this to be, as in Dancer in the Dark, an indictment of American capitalism and America’s treatment of immigrants. But to watch Dogville was like being bludgeoned over the head with an over-sized version of the Communist manifesto plated with iron. The acting performances were to be admired, as well as the sheer bloody-mindedness of the technical exercise, but there was little original or interesting in the political message. Let me once again re-iterate that I did not dislike this film because of its anti-capitalist message. I love Dancer in the Dark despite this. And if there were any further proof needed that anti-Americanism is not enough to make a movie good even in France, Trier took the film to Cannes and, for the first time ever, went home completely empty handed.

MANDERLAY has all of the political dogmatism and unsubtlety of DOGVILLE but has fewer decent acting performances to offset this. Notably, Bryce Dallas Howard, taking on the role of Grace, is a pale shadow of Nicole Kidman. This time Trier focuses his attentions of race relations and whether interfering in another regime is justified, and everyone is in the firing line. Grace stumbles on a plantation where slavery is still in effect despite the fact that it is now illegal. Should Grace intervene in affairs, and tell the slaves, indeed force the slaves, to be free? Or should, as the father suggests, they keep their noses out of other people’s business. (American foreign policy, anyone?) Grace intervenes, freeing the slaves and making the white slave owners their servants. At one point she has the former slave owners don “black face” and serve the former slaves supper.

Now, it is laudable to make a film about racial intolerance and whether it can be right to “force people to be free”. But I felt like Trier had nothing new, or powerful or interesting to say about these issues – at least in the first 80 minutes of the film. Worse still, I felt that Trier had none of the restraint shown in DOGVILLE. He was simply being shocking for the sake of it, as if to mask his lack of originality or indeed profundity with cries of horror. And isn’t making actors perform degrading acts without making any original and interesting creative or political statement in itself a form of exploitation? So I walked out. Once again, let me say that I do not object to the themes in Manderlay, or the use of some Dogme techniques, or the use of shocking imagery. I just object to the quality of the creative concept behind them. To my mind, MANDERLAY is a massive miscalculation and as crass and an offensive piece of work as you are likely to see on screen. It hurts to say that because I do admire much of Trier’s early work.

So should you see the movie? No doubt. My judgment is worthless because I could not stomach the full screening and who know what might have happened had I watched the whole movie. So please do go see MANDERLAY, and please tell me what you make of it!

MANDERLAY opened in France and Germany last week. It is scheduled for a limited release in the US on the 3rd February 2006. I’ll update the UK release date when I have it.

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