My summer with Lars: This week I went to "Manderlay" again

I’ll be taking a week off from my LvT screening project (to resume with The Boss of It All), but I wanted to say a word or two about the mostly unloved Manderlay (2006), the second installment of vT’s so called “USA trilogy” that began with Dogville.  I’ll go ahead and admit that most of Manderlay works for me, though set alongside Dogville it’s obviously the weaker film, and not only because two of its best actors (Nicole Kidman and James Caan) don’t come back to reprise their roles (they’re replaced by Bryce Dallas Howard and Willem Dafoe, who turn in workable performances of their own right).  Might the difference between the two boil down to vT’s decision to turn the silent-sufferer-turned-vigilante Grace of the earlier film into what Linda Badley calls a “white, perky, and shallow All-American Girl stereotype”?  It’s an ironic and jarring character shift, perhaps due in part to the screen presence of Howard (who, for all her attempts at gravitas, comes off as more of a petulant child than Kidman—especially in the way she says “Daddy!”).  But it makes a kind of weird logical sense that the Grace of Manderlay is not the same Grace from Dogville.  Seemingly more naïve but ultimately nastier and more self-satisfied than in the earlier film, this Grace has been born out of the violence of Dogville’s climax, ready to exercise her iron will wherever she can.  Like a Henry James heroine, Dogville’s Grace learns the lesson that one must do ill unto others or else others will do ill unto oneself; it’s a brutal and terrible lesson, but her learning it makes for devastatingly good storytelling, as it so often does in James.  The problem, narratively speaking, is that after learning that lesson Grace isn’t as compelling, her fall from innocence (or from grace, as the case may be) being already over; she’s much less interesting as villain than as victim-turned-villain. 

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