A cynic might assume that Danish director Lars von Trier began making films in English - starting with his very first feature, THE ELEMENT OF CRIME - to tap into the American audience and its dollars. An idealist might assume that he's attempting political interventions into American culture. In 1996, Jonathan Rosenbaum suggested that BREAKING THE WAVES was the attempt of a very cynical man to understand idealism. I agree and would add that this tension also powered von Trier's subsequent feature and last major film, THE IDIOTS. A forthcoming von Trier retrospective at the IFC Center uses a quote from him as its title: "well-meaning people are dangerous." Yes, they often are (just see Adam Curtis' THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES for proof), but cynical disillusionment is hardly something to celebrate.

Stylistically, MANDERLAY is DOGVILLE lite, using the same bare sets - with chicken coops outlined on the ground - but less frantic handheld camerawork. Grace (played this time around by Bryce Dallas Howard), who represented the underclass last time around, has now become a liberal activist, who happens upon a Southern town where blacks still act like slaves. DOGVILLE was seriously flawed by making its main victim of American oppression a beautiful, young white woman, but Howard is perfectly cast as a character who makes all the missteps of politically active college students. As satire, MANDERLAY hits home in a way that DANCER IN THE DARK and DOGVILLE never did. (For one thing, it's refreshing to see an attack on American interventionism from a reactionary perspective - and I'm not being sarcastic.) Grace never questions her own hypocrisies, ignorance and unconscious racism towards the people she's supposedly saving, cutting down trees that protect the town from fierce dust storms and confusing two characters because all black men look alike to her. In an era and country where "democracy" and "freedom" have become meaningless buzzwords (as a gay man who values the arts and doesn't want my phone tapped), I doubt my idea of "freedom" bears much resemblance to that of neo-cons), there's something refreshing about a film that dares to point their flaws out. 

All that said, von Trier is hardly free of his own brand of racism. The film's first few lines of dialogue concern white women's supposed magnetic attraction to men of color, a theme played out in a subplot. Surely, Grace's character is flawed enough without bringing up the possibility that she wants to free black men in order to fuck them. As it progresses, MANDERLAY becomes increasingly metaphorical, but the closing credits - stills of KKK rallies, the Rodney King beating, cops attacking civil rights protesters, etc. set to David Bowie's "Young Americans" - bring back the subject of American racism with a heavy-handed vengeance. Will von Trier's next film close with images of murdered prostitutes set to "American Woman?" Still, MANDERLAY got a rise out of me in a way that no von Trier film since THE IDIOTS has. Ultimately, I don't trust its politics: like Todd Solondz's supposedly daring PALINDROMES, it's  an endorsement of apathy and expression of  scorn for those who are trying to improve the world. All the same, it goes a long way towards making a case for von Trier's disgust with democracy. I'd like to see him resurrect Bess from BREAKING THE WAVES in the third part of this trilogy - if her death could heal her husband's paralysis, surely someone else's could bring her back - and really cross the currents of cynicism and idealism running through his work.