The Five Obstructions
Directed by Jørgen Leth, Lars von Trier. Starring Lars von Trier, Jørgen Leth, Patrick Bauchau, Majken Algren Nielsen. (2004, NR, 90 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 24, 2004
"Also today I experienced something that I hope to understand in a few days." The line is from Danish director Jørgen Leth’s 1967 short film, "The Perfect Human," and here, in a sublime documentary recounting a bizarre battle of creative wits between Leth and fellow Dane Lars von Trier, it’s repeated five times. Leth accepts a challenge to remake his 12-minute, black-and-white experimental film five more times, with von Trier – the twinkling sadist – implementing a random series of directorial obstacles for each remake. This is a friendly game of cat and mouse between the imperturbable elder statesman Leth and his bastard offspring: the capricious, smug von Trier. You’d expect nothing less from the founder of the Dogme 95 movement. Von Trier is a man who loves his rule book and rules by, if not love per se, then a sort of catty simulacrum that borders on madness. (He enjoys his caviar, too.) The Five Obstructions is, I think it’s safe to say, unlike any documentary you’ve ever seen before: part contest, part homage to an artist little known outside of his native country, and part boomeranging pie in the face for poor von Trier, who, try as he might (and boy, does he try), cannot trip up the smooth Leth, a man for whom being told he must shoot in "the most horrible place on Earth," as one of von Trier’s commandments goes, offers only a sigh before heading off to a Calcuttan slum with neither rupees nor Valium in hand. Now that’s a director. Throughout the course of The Five Obstructions, the audience is given glimpses of Leth’s original film, which has men and women performing everyday acts such as shaving, walking, and dancing in front of a perfect white, borderless background. The effect is that of a high-concept TV spot for a pricey European perfumery, which is almost certainly not what Leth intended in 1967, but what the intervening years and the state of international advertising these days has inflicted upon him. Both the film and the fun begin (at von Trier’s expense, as it turns out) when the pupil sends his master off to Cuba with the directive that this first remake consist of shots only 12 frames long – one-half of one second of screen time. Leth rises to the monumental challenge marvelously and returns with a syncopated work of breathtaking beauty that not only conforms to von Trier’s obstructions but complements (and very nearly improves upon) his original film. And so it goes, to Bombay, Brussels, and Port-au-Prince, as an increasingly vexed von Trier commands an increasingly unflappable Leth to "ruin" "The Perfect Human" again and again. One obstruction of particular note: "make an animated version," which brings Leth to Austin to employ the services of Flat Black Films animator Bob Sabiston (Waking Life), with the result being the most remarkable and lovely "Perfect Human" of all. The point of all this is murky – von Trier says something about wanting to teach Leth about Leth – but the resulting documentary is riveting, and frankly it’s great fun to see Leth best the smirky von Trier five times running.