LIKE THOMAS Vinterberg's tremendous Festen, Danish director Lars von Trier's The Idiots arrives under the banner of Dogma 95, a manifesto which insists inter alia upon location shooting, hand-held camera and no overdubbed sound. What this lofty set of principles actually entails is a great deal of fuzzy focus and camerawork so jerky you'd think the operator was in the throes of St Vitus's Dance.
The Idiots, in common with his previous film, Breaking The Waves, is an essay in physical and spiritual dysfunction. Karen (Bodil Jorgensen) tags along with a group of mentally disabled friends she meets in a restaurant. On the way back to their home she discovers that they are faking it, and that their "spazzing about" is a kind of social experiment - one in the eye for bourgeois normality, or something like that.
Von Trier cuts between the communal antics and to-camera interviews with individual members in the wake of the group's demise. The most eye-catching and wilfully controversial sequence involves a birthday party that descends into a "gang bang"; it must be said that the tangle of hairy backsides and bobbing erections is one of the least erotic sights in recent cinema. The film's main idea, as far as I could make out, is that the greater the dependence on "searching for the inner idiot", the more revealing it is of character, though this insight won't necessarily prompt any deeper emotional investment on our part. Every dogma has its day, but it's hard to imagine this one catching on.
Bruno Ganz has one of the great melancholy faces of cinema, but the lugubrious movement of Theo Angelopoulos's Eternity and A Day almost turns it into a death mask. This is another of those sick-soul-of-Europe art movies in which a man belatedly discovers his humanity through the innocence of a small boy (see Kolya and Life is Beautiful); almost inevitably it won last year's Palme d'Or at Cannes. Ganz plays a Greek writer, dying and stricken by regrets, yet determined to save an Albanian street kid from illegal adoption; running parallel to this sentimental narrative are rather more fantastical forays into the writer's past - lots of family beach scenes, clothes by Calvin Klein - and some extraneous doodling on the life of a 19th-century Greek poet. Some will be seduced by the film's stately pace and dreamlike atmosphere of yearning; personally, I found it as slow and heavy as a prison door.
Pick of the week is Best Laid Plans, a modest yet stylish thriller with noir trimmings. Nick (Alessandro Nivola), struggling in a crummy job at Tropico Recycling, finds himself doing getaway driver duties on a low- numbers robbery that supposedly can't go wrong. Of course, it does, and Nick is left deep in debt to some very nasty characters. His way out is to persuade girlfriend Lissa (Reese Witherspoon) to help him in an opportunistic sting on an old college friend (Josh Brolin), who's house-sitting a millionaire's mansion. Sharply written by 26-year-old Theodore Griffin, and moodily directed by Brit Mike Barker - there's a mournful Hopper glow to some of the night scenes - Best Laid Plans nimbly keeps one twist ahead as Nick's plan starts to unravel. In details of character and plot it dares to be slightly different from the common ruck, and these days even that little difference counts for a lot.
A Price Above Rubies is a high-minded drama about a young Hasidic woman's quest for independence. Sonia (Renee Zellweger), the wife of a gentle but deeply repressed scholar, has come down with hot flushes and a certain conviction that she's not cut out for a narrow life of obedience. Her frustrated sexuality finds an outlet in the lustful embrace of her brother- in-law Sender (Christopher Eccleston), who sets her to work in the family's jewellery business. Director Boaz Yakin handles the material with a reverence that tends to suffocate, and when he tries to be poetic the whole thing falls flat.
In Get Real, sixth-former Steven (Ben Silverstone) is an unhappy votary of the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, and especially not in a Basingstoke secondary school. The object of his affection is John Dixon (Brad Gorton), head boy, victor ludorum and strapping het hero - so what's he doing lurking around the public lav in the park? Simon Shore's film is well-meaning in its plea for sexual tolerance, but there's no getting round a wholly inadequate script and some surprisingly weak acting in important roles (Stacy A Hart and Kate McEnery are notable exceptions). It has the look of a slightly risque episode of Grange Hill - the look of television which is, in short, where it belongs.
Finally, another outing for The Chess Players (1977), Satyajit Ray's civilized, oddly forgiving account of Oudh's capitulation to the British in 1856. Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey play the two indolent noblemen who sit by while a kingdom is turned upside down.
All films are on release from tomorrow