After leaving Dogville far behind her, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is driven through Alabama with her father (Willem Dafoe) and his entourage of gangsters. However, when stopped outside the gates of a plantation called Manderlay, something happens to make Grace stop in her journey: a black woman, Flora (Suzette Llewellyn) rushes out and asks for assistance and Grace, believing herself to be the kind of person who will help out anyone in a jam, follows her. She finds the old, white woman (Lauren Bacall) in charge of the plantation is dying, but more serious than that the establishment still uses black slaves seventy years after their abolition. Filled with missionary zeal, Grace makes up her mind to change this situation, but is that such a good idea?
Manderlay was the follow up to that arch-trickster Lars von Trier's Dogville, the second in his American trilogy (well, anti-American trilogy, really) using particularly individual techniques that rendered the action as if it were being staged in a huge theatre, with the buildings and scenery marked out on the floor. Filmed in an oppressive gloom, here the issue of slavery is tackled, and our heroine is no longer played by Nicole Kidman but the younger and fittingly more naive-seeming Howard - perhaps the even more contentious subject matter scared Kidman off, but she claimed scheduling conflicts required her to pull out.
Whatever, Howard acquits herself nicely as the do-gooder who predictably ends up making a mess of things. Grace is told by the dying woman to destroy a certain book, and that book contains information on the slaves that places them into categories. Grace is enraged with righteous anger at this, and tells her father to go ahead without her and return after the harvest season is over: yes, she means to have a go at helping the newly freed slaves run the cotton plantation. By bringing democracy to these people, surely they will enjoy a better quality of life?
Well, they're getting paid, for a start, but von Trier isn't here to praise American democracy, he's here to bring it down to earth with his wit and cunning. Grace decides, for example, to cut down the trees of the old woman's garden that lined the plantation as she sees this as a symbol of the repression that the now ex-slaves had to suffer under. But later on, she realises to her cost that those trees were put there to stop the duststorms, and when they arrive the place is left close to devastation. However, it's not just the weather she has to contend with, but the workers as well, due to their newfound freedom making them reluctant to return to toiling on the land.
Grace's idealsitic liberalism is as much a target as slavery, and her well meaning efforts are shown to be self-serving and another form of whites having power over blacks, never mind that she punishes the white workers at one point by making them the slaves of the blacks, even in minstrel-style makeup. As you can see, Manderlay isn't exactly subtle, and by the time that power is getting to Grace's head to make her horny and lust after the angriest worker, Timothy (Isaach De Bankolé), any pretence at reasonable argument has evaporated. By the end, democracy has failed and the blacks are as complicit in their exploitation as the whites, a controversial opinion; the trouble is, von Trier appears to think he's using a keen scalpel to satirise the U.S.A., when really he's thumbing his nose with a "Nyah, nyah!" America might not be as great as some of its citizens think it is, but to represent its progressive thinkers against its cynics with such an unworldy character as Grace does quite a few people a disservice. Music by Joachim Holbeck, and like Dogville ends with David Bowie's "Young Americans" - only here the Nixon line is accompanied by a photograph of President George W. Bush!
Notoriously eccentric Danish writer, director and producer, a graduate of the Danish Film School, who has capitalised on international acclaim and disdain in equal measure. Thrillers Forbrydelsens Element and Epidemic started the ball rolling, with distinctive war drama Europa really setting von Trier up as a talent to watch.
Breaking the Waves, the first in a series of victim stories, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and his fame spread, especially as he had teamed up with three other directors to create the Dogme '95 rules of filmmaking - controversial The Idiots was von Trier's result. Then Dancer in the Dark, a musical starring Bjork, proving he was anything but predictable, and Dogville, a scabrous attack on American small town life.
He was next involved in The Five Obstructions, a documentary which revealed much about his methods. Then, a thematic follow-up to Dogville, slavery drama Manderlay, which was followed by little seen comedy The Boss of It All and most controversially, his relationship goes to hell horror Antichrist. His drama Melancholia won its star Kirsten Dunst Best Actress at Cannes, but he was ordered to leave after a press conference faux pas, then returned with the patience-testing, two part Nymphomaniac. On television, he created the superb horror series The Kingdom, and he frequently casts Udo Kier.