Manderlay (2005) from ICMS and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

ICMS's notes


Manderlay, written and directed by Lars Von Trier, is a surprising film, not in the least by its form. It is more a filmed stage play than a movie. All the action takes place in a hangar where the spectators can see the whole stage or parts of it, depending on what is lit, just like in a theater. That and the length of the feature, more than two hours, mean that the interest of the viewer must be grasped by a remarkable story told in captivating dialogues.

This kind of film isn't really my cup of tea, but when the aforementioned positives are present, as in Inserts, then I have no trouble at all with it. That is also the case with Manderlay, even more so than in Inserts, because the theme of the movie is much more important and interesting. It deals with racism and social structures between blacks and whites in the US in the 1930's. Let me elucidate a little bit without giving too much away.

Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), her dad and their mob leave Dogville and move to Manderlay, a cotton plantation in Alabama where slavery still seems to exist. Grace is disgusted by this and liberates the slaves by force. Seeing that they don't leave the plantation but remain passive, she takes things into her own hands and becomes the leader of the plantation, introduces new ways of decision-making but has no consideration for the structures that were in place before her arrival.

The question that Grace never asks herself is why the black people remain passive and continue to behave like slaves. She assumes they don't know any better and feels obliged to guide them, as if she were a patronizing politically correct person from the present day. The question I asked myself as a spectator was whether or not Lars Von Trier was going to keep portraying black people as unmotivated, ill-informed and passive during the entire movie, the way racists see them, or would he offer some kind of catharsis or denouement that reversed the aforementionned perception. Will white Grace realize that she is a slave as well, a slave of whitey's system at that? Watch the movie and you'll know.

As for the actors, they are all excellent, especially Bryce Dallas Howard, the only lead role in this film. This young actress encompasses a whole palette of emotions and expressions, ranging from gentle and soft-spoken to tough and tenacious. This movie was for her a great opportunity to show off her talent, so I would be surprised if the future weren't bright for her.

I have already established that the strong points of this film are the weighty themes and the elaboration of those themes through intelligent and interesting dialogue. I cannot however rest silently about its weak point, namely the technical part. In some parts this excellent movie is hampered by color shifts for no reason within the same scene, depending on which takes were used in the final edit. Compounding the problem, some scenes are out of focus. I know that Von Trier doesn't care much about such things, but if he did, his film would have been even better.

Notwithstanding the technical flaws, this film remains an excellent piece of work



  • Widescreen, 2.35:1
  • No features


Bryce Dallas Howard is completely naked in one scene that even includes an open crotch shot. Several black men are naked as well showing mostly buns, but occasionally a penis is briefly visible.

Scoop's notes

I'll be briefer than usual because, frankly, I'm tired of writing about the movies of Lars von Trier. Unlike other directors, he never learns from the mistakes he made in earlier pictures, so a critic can review a new one by doing a search-and-replace on reviews of the old ones.

Like the other ones, this one suffers from pedantry, artificial-sounding dialogue, staginess, a puerile and simplistic weltanschauung, long stretches of tedium, technical indifference, and characters which represent archetypes rather than credible individuals. Like the other ones, its strengths reside in its willingness to test the outside of the envelope when it comes to confrontational and provocative ideas, whether about cinema or the real world.

Manderlay is part two of the Dogville trilogy, using the same main character and presented in the same manner as the first part, which is to say by basically filming a stage set, using the twin conventions of minimalist theater and WKRP in Cincinnati. In other words, the actors are on an indoor stage which has rectangles painted on it, and those rectangles have labels like "Bill's house" or "Sammy's cabin." They may have a chair or two "inside" as well. When the characters enter those spaces, they cannot simply walk through the invisible walls, but must respect the imaginary barriers and pretend that they are entering real houses and cabins, as the other WKRP employees were required to do with Les Nessman's imaginary office.  Is this an effective way to present the ideas? You bet! Come to think of it, all films should be shot this way. Look at all the money Peter Jackson wasted on that Rings trilogy when he could have filmed the whole shebang in his house, simply writing "Frodo's house" or "Sauron's castle" on the floor of his garage or kitchen.

It takes place in the 1930s. Our oft-abused heroine and her father end up taking control of a Southern plantation where slavery persists. This is not as far-fetched as you might think. It may not have happened in the United States because of the dramatic and violent way in which the States finally closed the book on slavery, but such circumstances actually did happen throughout Russia. Czar Alexander II abolished slavery about the same time as it happened in the United States, in the 1860s, but Russia is an incomprehensibly large country, about as large as the entire continent of North America, filled with many remote areas, and its communication links to the provinces were extremely weak in the mid nineteenth century. Furthermore, there were many powerful aristocrats whose authority challenged that of the Czar himself and who complied with his declarations in a manner diametrically opposed to his intentions. (They "sold" off tracts of land to the peasants and turned them into "debt slaves" - and life continued as before.) Alexander may have officially declared the slaves to be free, but it was decades before the declaration was meaningful. It would, therefore have been perfectly possible to imagine a remote Russian estate in which serfs were still virtual slaves or possibly even actual slaves in the early 1900s, living the same lives their grandparents had lived as the legal chattel of the nobles in the 1850s. Essentially, that is the Manderlay scenario - an "evil Brigadoon" frozen in the 1850s.

Given the power, Grace decides to free the slaves, educate them, and ... well, after 139 minutes of yakking about it, nothing turns out quite like she planned. An important point of the film is that the legacy of slavery is enduring, and that's a point which is really impossible to contest.

Whatever else von Trier may accomplish, he stirs up controversy and gets people discussing important issues. I think that is a good thing. I just wish he could do it in a much shorter time without requiring the actors to play a game of "Les Nessman's Office." It's amazing that such a controversial guy can make such unwatchably tedious films. Von Trier really needs a collaborator. He needs somebody like Oliver Stone, a man who knows how to add life, imagination, and emotional punch to radical opinions, rather than just stating them outright in stagy speeches and flowery narration.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: two and a quarter stars out of four. James Berardinelli 1.5/4, Roger Ebert 3/4

  • British consensus: two and a half stars out of four. Telegraph 6/10, Guardian 6/10, Times 4/10, Express 8/10, FT 8/10, BBC 3/5.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. Micro distribution to a few arthouse theaters on the coasts. It grossed only $78,000 in the USA, but it didn't do much better elsewhere, grossing $500,000.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C+, based on the ICMS summary that it is "An astoundingly rich dialogue about important issues, but not a cross-over entertainment." Scoop says, "Most of von Trier's movies are C+ on our scale. This one, however, would be a C- in that even the critics who normally praise his movies were indifferent to this one. It's a 46 at Metacritic. It was also a box office zero. It grossed only $500,000 in the entire world. Lacking both critical and popular support, this film is only for von Trier's ardent fans."

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