A dog's life

Film - Mark Kermode watches yet another leading lady sacrificed to the cruelty of Lars von Trier

If films reflect the psyche of their directors, then the Danish auteur Lars von Trier must have been dropped on his head as a child, presumably by a woman. There's a recurrent theme of dramatic cruelty in von Trier's work that borders on the pathological, leading him time and again to visit spectacular indignities upon his leading ladies. From the moon-faced Emily Watson and the frankly mad pop-pixie Bjork to his latest celebrity scalp, the Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, any woman taking centre stage in a von Trier film can expect their character to be raped, battered and/or wrongfully executed in the name of art. All of which must be endured with a saintly and unflinching stoicism, striving to assuage the sins of men by passively allowing themselves to be violated even unto death.

True to form, after a brief diversion tormenting film-maker J0rgen Leth in the playfully destructive The Five Obstructions, von Trier returns to the woman-bashing of yore in Dogville, taking his European scalpel to the down-home myths of America once more. This Depression- era drama - narrated in deliciously fruity tones by John Hurt - finds Kidman's glamorous city girl Grace holing up in a remote hillside enclave where she seeks refuge from gangsters and policemen alike. Mistrusted by the pious community, Grace is allowed to stay on condition that she can prove her charitable worth, a task she accomplishes by bringing succour and support as a nanny, nursemaid, farmhand and lover. A brief honeymoon ensues during which our heroine revels in the simple pleasures of being appreciated, before things inevitably turn to shit, and the residents of Dogville are revealed to be the most mean-spirited, abusive, hypocritical bunch of bastards on the face of God's earth. Lo, two hours later, Nicole is shackled to a giant cartwheel that she must drag around town while performing slave labour by day, before collapsing into bed to be raped and humiliated by night. Stop me if you've heard this one before . . .

Less a misogynist than a misanthrope, von Trier works within a puritanical economy of sadism and transcendence in which sanctimonious religious and social institutions conspire to persecute innocent women who - thanks to some incredibly arch plot device - must endure and embrace their victimisation. Thus, in Breaking the Waves, Emily Watson allows herself to be raped and beaten in order to facilitate her crippled husband's recovery, while in Dancer in the Dark Bjork goes willingly to the gallows, sacrificing herself for the benefit of her son. Within this all-too-familiar dramatic scheme, Dogville is remarkable only for its "angel of death" coda, which comes closer to the exploitation roots of the rape-revenge genre than any of von Trier's previous "art-house" hits. This is something of a blessing, infinitely preferable to the heavenly bell-ringing of Breaking the Waves, which remains one of the few films that I would happily see banned on purely ideological grounds.

To its credit, Dogville is a formalistic triumph, working wonders with the barren stage-rehearsal set that simply maps out the town through lines on the floor, and leaves walls, doors and buildings entirely to the imagination. Yet despite the Brechtian alienation of its construction (and original inspiration), one never quite sheds the brutal emotional involvement that prevents this from becoming a painless, cerebral experience. Central to the film's power are the performances, particularly Paul Bettany, who proves once again that he is simply the best British actor of his generation. From Gangster No 1, in which he acted Malcolm McDowell off the screen, to A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander, wherein he cast long shadows over Russell Crowe's flagging form, Bettany radiates scene-stealing presence. Kidman, too, is in fine form, with von Trier clearly rattling her cage to elicit yet another convincingly harrowing turn from his beleaguered lead actress. And then there's Stellan Skarsgard, briefly escaping from the big-budget fiasco of Exorcist: the beginning to lend an air of threat to these stripped-down proceedings, plus a smattering of legendary Hollywood supports from the likes of a rancid Lauren Bacall, and even a playfully world-weary James Caan.

As for von Trier, one takes him seriously at one's own peril. His films are all ultimately pranks, po-faced parlour games constructed with smirking contempt for audiences that fail to get the joke. Dogville is often deliberately funny, bristling with sardonic wit (emphasised by Hurt's insouciant voice-over) throughout its opening act, and even perhaps in its cataclysmic finale. In the end, there is no point being either offended or impressed by his troublesome dramatic experiments because von Trier doesn't really mean any of it. Better to smile wryly at the naughty Danish jester whose films seem a perfect extension of himself, talented and loathsome in infuriatingly equal measure.

Dogville (15) is on general release