In the late 1960's, Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth made a short conceptual work, titled The Perfect Human. Future filmmaker Lars von Trier saw Leth's film as a student in the 70's and was deeply inspired by it's use of cinematic rules and uncluttered presentation of cinematic composition. Over thirty years on, von Trier, now a close friend of Leth, has presented the elderly director with a mammoth task. He is to remake his celebrated short film, The Perfect Human not once, but five times, each with a strict and unarguably eccentric set of guidelines devised by von Trier.
The Five Obstructions gives a great insight into the lives of these two filmmakers, as it documents Leth's cinematic strategies and intuitive genius in the face of von Trier's questioning pomposity, though ultimately the film ends up as little more than a subtle in-joke between the two filmmakers which, although interesting and enjoyable, leaves the viewer with little of personal meaning to take home with them. Leth's cinematic obstructions, here devised by von Trier, are an attempt to strip away any remnants of the senior director's genius, with von Trier proclaiming that the film won't be a success until Leth has turned it into a piece of crap (...von Trier's words!). The obstructions run the gauntlet from the seriously challenging (like no cut can be longer than twelve frames, the action must take place near a an 'unseen' scene of personal degradation), to the seriously strange (the film must be shot in Havana, the film must be a cartoon, your obstruction is there are no obstructions... and so on).
Leth is able to deliver the film with almost all of von Trier's obstructions taken into consideration and, when each film is finished, the two filmmakers sit down together and watch the film whilst Leth is given the opportunity to explain to von Trier what his intentions were. The final obstruction is possibly von Trier's least pretentious concoction ever, as he turns the film completely on its head in a way that you'll either find mildly infuriating or heart-warmingly endearing. The film is a bold experiment and demonstrates how a filmmaker can elaborate on something they already view of as a 'perfect work' by being given a series of set guidelines by someone outside of the initial production's conception. But it could have been so much more.
Many have viewed the film as an interesting essay into the nature of the auteur and the role of the director as the soul vision behind a work, but more people have seen it instead as a noble attempt by von Trier to lure the aging Leth away from his self-imposed exile in Haiti and his often mentioned, crippling depression. At any rate, the film has it's pros and cons, one of them being the notion that a film marketed as being very much about von Trier as a film-scamp turns out to be an intelligent and astute look into the workings of a filmmaker sadly neglected outside his native Denmark. I came to this film wanting to experience it as a fan of von Trier, but I left it wanting to learn more about Leth and to track down some of his works (shorts and documentaries) that are criminally unavailable here in the UK.
The DVD of the Five Obstructions features the full-length version of Leth's original Perfect Human short, though it's lack of subtitles will cause an obvious hindrance for those of us who aren't fluent in the Danish language... though, this too could be an arcane obstruction for the audience, presented by von Trier. Well, perhaps? At the end of the day, The Five Obstructions remains an interesting look into the strange working relationship and antagonistic friendship that these two very different men share. It has humour, interesting visuals (taken from Leth's films) and a bold idea, but it could and should have delivered a lot more than it actually does.
As the credits begin to roll, we are left with the feeling that, yes, I enjoyed that... did I learn anything from it? No, not really. This is an interesting failure, for cinephiles, von Trier fanatics & those with an interest in European film only.
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