Also Importing Lars von Trier's Manderlay

Ever since I covered Lars von Trier's Dogville, I've been meaning to swing back and take a look at Manderlay. It's kind of the same situation, where there is no blu-ray, only DVDs, and the US DVD is missing a bunch of features from the previously released native Denmark set from Zentropa and Nordisk Films. And Zentropa beat them by a large margin of almost a year. I remember people were buzzing about Manderlay opening up in theaters soon, and I was surprised because I already had the DVD at home. But is this import DVD truly 100% superior? Should you track it down and replace your IFC Films DVD?
Manderlay is the second part of his "Land of Opportunities" trilogy (Dogville being the first), and it's interesting to note that both of Trier's narrative trilogies to date - the other being The Kingdom - have only made it to the second chapter. Fortunately, unlike The Kingdom I & II, these are more distinct stand-alone stories, so you don't feel like you're left at a dangling cliffhanger by the end of this film. But the connection to the first film is strong. It's presented in the same style, with all the actors placed on a mostly blank stage with only the props essential to the story and locations marked on the floor. And while Nicole Kidman has been replaced by Bryce Dallas Howard (who isn't quite as compelling in the part, but still more than adequately lives up to the film's dramatic challenges), the lead character persists, having left the town of Dogville and arrived on the estate of Manderlay. Willem DaFoe, Lauren Bacall, Jeremy Davies and Udo Kier are all back, and John Hurt once again narrates.
If Dogville offended some Americans, Manderlay doubled-down, this time tackling race issues and slavery, and not necessarily in the most politically correct way. Leaving Dogville, Howard and her gangster family drive into Manderlay and stop to take a rest at what they discover to be a plantation where slavery exists despite the film taking place in the 1930s, long after it had been abolished in this country. Howard is appalled and decides to stay with her lawyer and a few of her family's gunmen long enough to set things right at Manderlay. But obviously things don't fall into place as smoothly as she'd imagined, and we delve into commentary on cultures imposing their way of life on other cultures (i.e. spreading Democracy), the contemporary state of African Americans being in some ways worse than slavery, and of course all the wild layers of interpersonal drama that you can expect in a Trier film.

We've got some great additions to the cast this time around, including Danny GloverIsaach de Bankolé and Chloë Sevigny. And while reactions to this film weren't quite as strong as the previous, because the look and style of the film wasn't so new and innovative, I think that actually puts us in a better place to appreciate both films. Now we're left in a position to appreciate the film on its narrative and other qualities, as opposed to its novelty value. And fortunately, it's a pretty smart and engaging film underneath its unusual presentation.
2006 IFC DVD on top; 2005 Zentropa DVD on the bottom.
These transfers look pretty dang similar. Both are anamorphic widescreen images, although IFC's is a smidgen more open, at 2.32:1, giving us a sliver extra vertical information. Although Zentropa's framing is probably the more accurate composition. The main difference, though, is that IFC's DVD is a hair brighter and redder, and Zentropa's is a touch smoother and more yellow. Whether that smoothness is a pro or a con, though, is a tough call, because it's not faithful grain that we're getting on the IFC disc, since this film was shot digitally. So is Zentropa better for having less digital noise, or is it too scrubbed? I'm inclined to say the former, because they both still have digital artifacting and haloing, so it's nothing good that we're losing. And the difference is pretty minimal, anyway, to the point that you'd only notice it in direct close-up comparisons like this anyway. It's basically just like the differences between the two Dogville discs, except they're more subtle and minimal here. Basically, for SD transfers, they're both fine and would rate basically the same grade on a scorecard.

Both discs offer 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks, though only Zentropa also offers a 5.1 DTS mix. On the other hand, only the US disc offers English subtitles, whereas Zentropa has optional Swedish and Danish subs.
Oh, and did I refer to Zentropa's release as a "set" earlier? Yeah, that's because, unlike IFC's release, theirs is a 2-disc set, with an entire second disc devoted to additional special features. And the US DVD has bupkis. Bub. Kis. At least the US DVD of Dogville had the commentary, but not Manderlay. We didn't even get the trailer.

And there is a commentary. Lars von Trier and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle jump onto the Zentropa DVD for a great forthcoming and irreverent discussion, that drifts from the technical to anecdotes with the cast and themes behind the story. You get that, brief interviews with Bryce Dallas Howard, Isaach de Bankolé, Danny Glover and Willem Dafoe, plus, yes, the trailer, all on disc 1. Again, the US DVD has nothing.
And disc 1 is just the beginning! Open up the case for the Zentropa set and staring you in the face is a second disc cheerfully labeled "ADDED VALUE." And I'll certainly go along with that, because this disc is packed. First we get two documentaries, which combined add up to feature length: The Road to Manderlay, a traditional but in-depth 'making of,' and The Cannes Experience: Manderlay, which is pretty self-explanatory. Then there's an excellent featurette showcasing the complex shooting method they used to film this picture using cameras in arrays. There's another featurette on the set design (uniquely important, of course, in the case of Dogville and Manderlay), and a short silly one about actor Jeremy Davies running around fetching coffee for everybody on set.

And don't get up yet, there's plenty more. There are short, on-camera interviews with Danny Glover (not the same one as on disc 1), Willem Dafoe (also different from disc 1), Lauren Bacall, Joseph Mydell, Anthony Dod Mantle and producer Vibeke Windelov, plus a long one (23 minutes) with Trier himself. Then there's a half-hour Danish television piece on Manderlay, which is essentially one giant sit-down interview between Trier and their host. And finally, there's a collection of three filmed press conferences for the film, one with Trier, one with Howard, and one with Bankole, Glover and DaFoe all together, which add up to about 50 minutes of additional interviews. There is so much here, you are not going to want to attempt it in a single evening.
Manderlay was shot with HD cameras, so a blu-ray would be nice to see sometime in the future. But there's nothing on the horizon so far, and I imagine this title's pretty low on anyone's list of priorities. After all, if the studio considered this a high profile title, they would've bothered to at least include the extras that were already created and released for this film. So we'll have to make due with DVDs, but we don't have to make do with a boring, plain old barebones American DVD. The Danish set is the very definition of a fully loaded special edition, and the differences between the two transfers are so subtle you have to push yourself to pick a side. So unless you need English subtitles, there's really no reason to hang onto the cheap native disc. And even then, I'd recommend double-dipping.

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