Dir: Lars von Trier. Denmark. 2003. 177mins

The 900lb gorilla of this year's Cannes Competition, Lars von Trier's Dogville is a typically uncompromising experiment in stripped down narrative. Excessive in its running-time and highly theatrical in its execution, it ultimately emerges as a vivid and thoughtful exploration of a world condemned to suffer from the constant, grinding disappointments of human nature. A three-hour provocation to Von Trier's detractors, it is a bold piece that will constitute a must-see arthouse experience even as it inevitably divides audiences and critics. The presence of a stellar international cast, including Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany, can only increase its value but as always the real star is Von Trier himself who continues to be one of the most original and unapologetically idiosyncratic talents currently testing the commercial boundaries of European cinema. A major prize at Cannes would seem irrelevant to its fortunes but equally not out of the question.

The first of Von Trier's planned USA trilogy, Dogville is set in the rural America of the 1930s but filmed entirely on the bare sound stages of Sweden. Production designer Peter Grant uses the minimum of props to conjure up a small town of shop fronts, benches, trees and homes on a vast space where white lines signify the outlines of buildings and homes. It could well be the design for a stage production but that sense of theatricality doesn't detract from the emotions or ideas at the heart of Dogville, instead it serves to bring them into sharper, starker focus. It even seems appropriate to a period when radical, groundbreaking American theatre was at its peak. You can almost imagine Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre company taking a similar approach.

The substance of the piece echoes some of the dramatists and novelists of the time, from Eugene O'Neill and William Faulkner to Maxwell Anderson and Thornton Wilder. It even carries the air of some lost production from the Golden Age of live American television drama. Add in echoes of Brecht and Pirandello, Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter and contemporary echoes in the plight of any refugee seeking sanctuary in a foreign land and it becomes clear that Dogville is a fusion of many styles and influences distilled as pure Von Trier.

Unfolding in nine segments and a prologue, the film benefits enormously from the rich, ruby port tones of John Hurt who acts as the ubiquitous narrator, setting the scene, describing events and providing a wry commentary on some of the characters and developments as the beautiful fugitive Grace (Kidman) arrives in the isolated community of Dogville seeking sanctuary and throwing herself on the kindness of strangers.

On the run from a collection of gangsters that include Von Trier regulars Udo Kier and Jean Marc Barr, Grace has clear affinities with the innocent, tortured, self-sacrificing heroines of Von Trier's Breaking The Waves and Palme d'Or winner Dancer In The Dark. She may be the most worldly of them but she may also be the purest of heart.

Aspiring writer and philosopher Tom (Bettany) is the one who pleads the case for Grace before the rest of the community. She offers them her vulnerability and the good people of Dogville risk charity by granting her shelter. She also offers to repay their generosity with work but nobody can find anything for her to do, at least initially. That changes and she is soon working all the hours of the day. The arc of the film becomes the way that instinctive act of compassion by the town sours into grotesque exploitation as Grace is made to suffer for every kind word and thoughtful gesture that she has received. The mask of civilisation and friendship soon slips to reveal the true heart of human darkness and fuel Grace's sad disappointment in them and the whole human race.

Although its running time is substantial, Dogville never overstays its welcome. It has enough meat to sustain your interest and enough eccentricity to keep you hooked. Von Trier's admirers may even sense a powerful streak of autobiography in a central character who sees human nature with all its blemishes and failings and yet continually hopes for the best. Kidman gives her all to the physical and emotional demands of playing Grace and carries none of the awkwardness of Bjork's more primitive contribution to Dancer In The Dark which augurs well for any future development of her professional attachment to Von Trier. Bettany also impresses as the weak-willed philosopher Tom and there are fine moments from an ensemble that includes Stellan Skarsgard, Ben Gazzara and Patricia Clarkson. All the audience has to supply is a willingness to suspend disbelief and a little imagination.

Prod co Zentropa Entertainment
Int'l sales Trust Films
Prod Peter Aalbeck Jensen, Vibeke Windelov
Scr Lars von Trier
Cinematography Anthony Dod Mantle
Prod des Peter Grant
Ed Molly Malene Steensgaard
Main cast Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, Philip Baker Hall