Movie Review
The Five Obstructions
Director: Jorgen Leth & Lars Von Trier
Cast: Jorgen Leth, Lars Von Trier

no contemporary narrative filmmaker is as consistently progressive as Denmark’s Lars von Trier. The auteur behind the Dogme 95 movement—which stipulated that its films be shot on digital video, without artificial lighting, props or any special effects—von Trier is simultaneously a stylistic minimalist and a storyteller with a penchant for overblown melodrama. The reconciliation, or lack thereof, between these two elements has made for some of the most fascinating and involving art-house films of the past decade.

And yet, for the overwhelming emotional power of a film like Dancer in the Dark, what I remember most is the striking disparity between the murky dramatic scenes shot on digital video and the flamboyant musical numbers shot on 35mm with 100 stationary cameras. I can’t recall even the bare bones of the plot for Zentropa, a film I remember liking, but its imagery—a black-and-white foreground combined with a colorful, shifting background—is etched into my memory. Even von Trier’s new Dogville, my favorite film so far this year, will probably be remembered mostly as that film shot entirely on a bare stage with buildings marked by chalk lines.

In a recent Village Voice interview, von Trier says that his cinematic progression has evolved “towards human beings. I’ve moved away from the landscapes, and now there are almost only human beings in the film.” However, striving for an ideal doesn’t always make it true. For one thing, the legendarily monomaniacal von Trier doesn’t deal well with humans at all. The stars of his two past films, Nicole Kidman and Bjork, now refuse to work with him; the latter will never act in a film again. He has never left Denmark, and recently shot the seemingly anti-American Dogville without ever setting foot in this country. And, as the new meta-documentary The Five Obstructions proves, for all his whiz-kid formalist inventions, von Trier is still an asshole without the ability to connect on a human level. For that reason alone, this is the most important film he has ever made.

The film is a product of the following correspondence from von Trier to Danish avant-garde filmmaker Jorgen Leth:

Dear Jorgen,

The challenge/The Film you are supposed to make/solve is called: THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS. As a starting point I would like you to show me a 12 minute film you have made—The Perfect Human. We will watch the movie together and talk about it—then I will set up limitations, commands or prohibitions, which means you have to do the film all over again. This we will do five times—off this comes the title. I would find it natural if our conversations became a part of the final movie—with the five small films, of course.

I hope you’re happy with the assignment. Maybe the subject for the first movie should be something we came to an agreement about? Of course we would have the most fun if the subject is of a character that gives us as big a difference as possible between one film and five?

Let me know how you feel about this. Please write.

Best regards, Lars

Lars, of course, has a pointed agenda. Leth’s 1967 short film The Perfect Human examines a “perfect” male and a “perfect” female, in gorgeous black-and-white, as an arguably tongue-in-cheek anthropological experiment. To von Trier, however, Leth himself is the “perfect human”, detached and unemotional, calm and composed, an aesthetic perfectionist; of course, von Trier wants to smash him to his foundations, to “cure” him of this illness. His series of near-sadistic limitations—the film must be shot in Cuba, each shot can only be 12 frames long, you must play the Perfect Human yourself, etc.—are meant to function as a sort of electroshock therapy. However, as Leth’s five “obstructed” films prove increasingly successful, the therapy reverses its effect, and von Trier loses his ground in a subtle power struggle of his own creation.

This is a remarkable, original and uncompromising film. I only wish von Trier had allowed the audience to make some of the judgments that he vocalizes himself at the end of the film. He presents a thorough conclusion, a meta-analysis of the surprising results of his experiment, but this is an experiment that deserves scrutiny from multiple angles. A question: how can an artist unite postmodernism and romanticism while still creating a progressive work? Leth is not given the last word.

The Five Obstructions is not as dry or academic as it sounds. Lars von Trier is a Machiavellian, brutish quasi-villain, reminiscent of more than a few fastidious grammar school teachers, and Leth matches him blow for blow with understated wit and creativity. His Perfect Human films—playful, sardonic and entertaining—seem far removed from the avant-garde, closer in spirit to the films of Alain Resnais or the music videos of Michel Gondry. Leth, of course, is the human figure of this film, and the pawn in von Trier’s game, but in the end it’s Lars whose fallibility is exposed, and the result is exhilarating.

By: Akiva Gottlieb
Published on: 2004-03-22
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