The year is 1933, the place is Alabama, and the protagonist is a young woman named Grace, who is played by the relatively unknown Bryce Dallas Howard. In Dogville—Manderlay's predecessor in a trilogy that, when completed in 2007 with Wasington, is to be Lars von Trier's Great American Movie—a super-famous actress, Nicole Kidman, plays Grace. Both Graces are the daughters of gangsters; both enter small communities that represent an early stage in the development of the American mind. In Dogville it is a place that approximates Our Town, or better yet, It's a Wonderful Life. In Manderlay it is a place that is everywhere but onscreen in Gone with the Wind: the living quarters for enslaved black Americans.

But there is a twist—with Lars von Trier, one must always expect a (cheap) twist. The slave world that Grace encounters while traveling with her gangster father (Willem Dafoe) through the Deep South is already, by 1933, outmoded. It has been illegally perpetuated on a plantation called Manderlay by a great white mother, Lauren Bacall (who also had a role in Dogville). Grace frees the slaves and informs them of their status as full citizens of the United States. The black slaves, however, do not receive their liberation with an expression of joy. They seem somewhat lost, a little worried, and at times hostile. The great white mother dies soon after the fall of the old order. And Grace assumes the responsibility of teaching the difficult blacks the meaning and uses of something they have never had in their entire lives: freedom. Grace is on a goodwill mission.

Like Dogville, Manderlay was shot with a handheld digital camera on a huge soundstage. There are very few visible props, and sound effects are used to represent invisible things—animals, doors, door handles, and so on. Because there is no scenery, there is no mise-en-scĂšne. The film is entirely made up of actors and a story that's narrated by world-weary John Hurt. Danny Glover, who provides the best performance, plays the "house nigger," and Isaach De BankolĂ©, who looks great for a man in his early 50s, reprises the role that launched his career in 1989, in Claire Denis's Chocolat. BankolĂ© is the "proud nigger" (or, more accurately, "buck nigger"), the impenetrable slave who refuses to be a slave, who is regularly whipped, who won't give in, and who defiantly displays the grace and arrogance of an African warrior. As with Chocolat, in Manderlay BankolĂ© is the black body on which a white woman's sexual frustration longs to find satisfaction.

Now for the moment of truth: Manderlay is a massive failure from whose ruins nothing can be recuperated—not even Glover's performance survives this write-off of a wreck. It's supposed to be about America, about the country's evil birth in the Southern plantation system, which takes the form of a negative Eden, with white women as Eve, black men as Adam, and white men as the snake. But the only American thing in Manderlay is some of the actors (most of the black actors are British). The substance of the film is in actual fact European.

Manderlay is a weak interpretation of the slave/master theory that's famously described in Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality. The theory goes something like this: Slave mentality is inferior to the master's mentality because the slave identity is wholly dependent on his/her relationship with the master, whereas the master's identity is not dependent on his/her relationship with the slave. The master is self-sufficient. He says who he is while the slave is told who he is. This theory informs the ending of Manderlay.

But anyone who has read slave/master theories in the European philosophical context knows that they lack flesh, blood, bones, and a specific history. The slave/master construction is purely abstract and universal, whereas actual slavery in America involved real people, who were really whipped, raped, and exploited. In the way that black American slaves were absent from Gone with the Wind, the living memory of black American slavery is absent from Manderlay.

charles@thestranger.com