The Five Obstructions is a passkey into the often forbidding world of Lars von Trier's films. It's a short, documentary-like, highly conceptual film about a `game' Von Trier played with an older fellow Dane, Jørgen Leth, a kind of filmmaking mentor for him. In the Sixties Leth made a short art film called The Perfect Human, which Von Trier has always greatly admired. For The Five Obstructions, Leth and Von Trier get together and plan for Leth to `remake' the film with Von Trier setting arbitrary and challenging new conditions to govern the process. In the course of this film, Leth `remakes' The Perfect Human four times, and then Von Trier makes up a `letter' in Leth's voice describing what has happened.
By watching this `game,' we find out a lot about how Von Trier works with other people in making a film. It's not only here that Von Trier has begun by imposing a set of limitations upon himself and others; he always does that. This certainly provides a handy way of seeing his challenging, often maddening, work. Von Trier becomes a little like Guy Grand, Terry Southern's wicked trickster millionaire in The Magic Christian, whose whole delight is in getting people to do things that are against their nature. Grand gets them to do it for money; Von Trier gets Leth to do it out of friendship. Presumably when Von Trier has put actors like Emily Watson or Nicole Kidman through their ordeals, they have done it for art. This time, it's the mutual friendship and respect that humanizes the abrasive Von Trier, and in frankly accepting his total failure to stump Leth or spoil his fun, Von Trier shows himself to be a better sport than his critics might have expected. But he also shows himself to be wicked and mean, with a sense of humor that's both playful and malicious again, like Terry Southern's Guy Grand.
Snatches of The Perfect Human appear throughout The Five Obstructions, but it's worth noting that we never see it all, nor do we see all of Leth's new `versions.' We have to take it on faith that they're the way Von Trier or Leth say they are. The `remakes' are obviously very free adaptations, and the latter ones are more commentaries on the remake process than anything else.
The Perfect Human is an arty film in which a well dressed man eats, talks, and dances in front of a blank white ground while a voiceover asks `Is this what the Perfect Man does?'
Von Trier's assumption clearly is that Leth himself is the `Perfect Human,' and that his arbitrary rules for the `remakes' (the first of which is that no take will be longer than 12 frames half a second) will put dents in Leth's control so deep, will cut so far into the crystal glass of his perfection, that he will fall apart and will be forced to make a `mess.' This is what Von Trier repeatedly states: that nothing would make him happier than for Leth to make a `mess.' He hopes that through destroying Leth's artifice he will make Leth produce something truer and more human.
Other requirements are for Leth to make the film in Cuba, where he's never been; in `the most horrible place in the world' (which turns out to be the red light district of Mombai-Bombay, where he has been) but without showing its horror; to do a `remake' without rules; to do one in the form of an animated cartoon (a format neither man likes), and so on. Von Trier comes up with these different `obstructions' randomly when the two men meet at various stages in the `game.'
But Leth makes no messes. He succeeds brilliantly in working within the difficult limitations Von Trier has set and comes up with a polished work every time, and though he seems to be losing some sleep on the first go-through, he gets happier and happier as things go forward, a sign Von Trier finds ominous. In the end the letter read as a voiceover by Leth, but written by Von Trier, states that it's Von Trier who's shown his weaknesses. It's the aggressor, not the victim, who shows his faults, he says. It's Von Trier, he admits (in the voice of Leth), who has been pretending in all his films to be authentic but really lying and concealing himself behind a mask of artifice.
The `game' may sound orderly when described, but in fact the whole framework is a very loose convention; it isn't followed closely. This also sheds light on Von Trier's working methods in his films: they aren't as rationally structured as they appear. Von Trier doesn't impose the same kind of limitations on Leth each time; he imposes fewer and different ones, and `obstruction' five is really just to credit Leth along with Von Trier, to make the footage of their conversations into this film, and to have Leth read the `letter' Von Trier wrote for him.
Von Trier freely admits that Leth's solutions to his `obstructions' are brilliant, starting with the 12-frame takes, which Leth turns into a jazzy staccato rhythm. In Bombay, Leth shoots himself in front of a semi-transparent scrim that does show, and yet hide, the teeming masses behind him as he eats a sybaritic meal dressed in evening clothes. It's cheating, yet it's also a masterstroke. For the animated cartoon version, he gets Bob Sabiston, the man who did the animations for Richard Linklater's superb Waking Life, and its not surprising that the result is an elegant and fresh-looking commentary on all the previous films made in the series, including the original Perfect Human film from the Sixties.
The whole paradox is that both Von Trier and Leth are control freaks and that even their playing about with loss of control is highly controlled. Viewers are free to see The Five Obstructions as a sterile exercise. J.Hoberman calls it `one part documentary, one part psychodrama, and one part mock manifesto' and that's about right. But I found it interesting, and my first chance to watch a Von Trier film without being repulsed. But is it a Von Trier film -- or a film about Von Trier? That is hard to say.
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