By Neil Smith
BBC News Online
Danish director Lars von Trier - maker of The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark - is no stranger to controversy but his new movie Dogvile, starring Nicole Kidman, surpasses any of his previous provocative works.
Halfway through Dogville's harrowing third hour, Nicole Kidman's character finds herself raped repeatedly while wearing a dog-collar and chained to a mill wheel.
Kidman plays a young woman hiding from gangsters in Dogville
The glamour of Hollywood must have seemed a long way away for the Moulin Rouge star, but her humiliations have resulted in one of the year's most unsettling films and a drama sure to outrage as much as it impresses.
Dogville is set in an isolated township in the Rocky Mountains during the Prohibition era. But Von Trier - who refuses to fly - made the film entirely in his home country.
Not only that, but he did so entirely within the confines of one huge soundstage, with chalk marks on the floor denoting buildings, roads and scenery.
The result - shot on grainy digital video using shaky handheld cameras - is closer to an avant-garde theatre production than a mainstream cinema release.
Throughout, Von Trier asks us to suspend our disbelief, use our collective imaginations and engage with the action on a visceral gut level.
Master and Commander actor Paul Bettany co-stars with Kidman
The success of the film depends entirely on whether the viewer can accept the highly stylised way in which it is executed.
Kidman plays Grace, a beautiful fugitive on the run from gangsters who takes refuge in the eponymous hamlet.
The initially suspicious residents agree to hide her, and in return Grace agrees to work for them.
Gradually, however, Dogville starts to take advantage of their seemingly defenceless visitor.
Von Trier presents his story as a filmed novel, complete with prologue, nine chapter headings and John Hurt an unseen narrator.
He has also assembled a formidable ensemble cast that includes British actor Paul Bettany, Hollywood veteran Lauren Bacall and 2004 Oscar nominee Patricia Clarkson.
The director conceived the film as the first part in a US trilogy dealing with the issue of slavery.
One can only imagine what horrors he has in store for us in Parts Two and Three.
Dogville's buildings and scenery are represented by white lines
Launched at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, Dogville was tipped to win the prestigious Palme d'Or but went away empty-handed.
Well, almost. The chalk outline of Dogville's resident pooch Moses won the "Palme Dog" prize after judges considered it "vital to the film's impact".
Perhaps the film missed out on greater honours because it treads a fine line between daring experiment and elaborate parlour game.
Whatever Von Trier's intentions, however, this is a film that stays with you long after the end credits - accompanied, in one last directorial flourish, by David Bowie's Young Americans.
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