September 30, 2004

Cornell Cinema

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The Five Obstructions is not your usual documentary. Its entire premise revolves around one simple mission but encompasses all the philosophical implications that such a task would entail. In 1967, Danish movie director Jorgen Leth directed a movie called The Perfect Human, a work of art that contemporary director Lars Von Trier considers to be the perfect film. More than thirty years after the film”s initial conception, Von Trier challenges his idol, Leth, to come out of retirement and remake The Perfect Human five more times. To spice things up, Von Trier adds a twist: each remake will have to reconcile certain obstructions dictated by Von Trier.

What sort of obstructions does Von Trier have in mind? The first sends Leth to Cuba to remake The Perfect Human with each shot lasting no more than 12 frames. ‘The film will be spastic!’ laments Leth in horror. However, when Leth presents his first remake to Von Trier upon his return, we are delighted by an exquisite film that manages to use the 12-frame rule to its advantage. Having met the first challenge with surprising success, Leth is soon sent off to do remakes two through four.

The film allows viewers a glimpse of conversations between the two great Danish directors, and as the obstructions increase in difficulty, these back-and-forth episodes often result in amusing consequences. One instance has both Leth and Von Trier talking about the insipid quality of animated films. ‘I hate animation,’ declares Von Trier, and Leth wholeheartedly agrees. You can imagine what happens next. Von Trier decides that for obstruction #4, he wants Leth to remake The Perfect Human into an animated film.

The main triumph of The Five Obstructions is that it remains powerful without the crutch of artificial construction. There are no scripts, no storylines, and no convenient characters. The camera faithfully follows Leth around the world as he films his remakes, occasionally offering spontaneous instances of reflection from the director, and always chronicling his numerous interactions with Von Trier. Coupled with clips of Leth”s films, the movie becomes a unique vision of beauty.

Why does Von Trier insist on torturing his idol and mentor with a slew of seemingly impossible tasks? For that matter, why does Leth even agree to comply? The mystery running rampant throughout the entire film is finally answered by the fifth obstruction. Von Trier”s obstructions are not meant to be cruel or damaging. By challenging Leth, Von Trier hopes to rejuvenate the retired director, whose talent he considers to be going to waste. Von Trier admits that he hopes to evoke a sense of displeasure in Leth, like the one present in an actor forced to perform a scene he hates. Von Trier is trying to spark a reaction out of his idol, to unearth the genius in Leth that remains presently dormant. As we watch Leth overcome every obstruction without sacrificing any of his original purpose, it becomes evident that we are watching an old master at work.

The twinkle in Leth”s eye as he looks on with admiration upon his finished work is a far cry from his initially solemn state when Von Trier first brings him out of retirement from Haiti. That, and the deep-seated affection that Von Trier has for Leth, are both potent emotional undercurrents prevalent in The Five Obstructions. These qualities are what make the movie powerful because they are born of authenticity and cannot be artificially fabricated. In the end, Von Trier and Leth are both changed by the five obstructions. What is this fifth obstruction that reveals so much? All I can say is that it provides the perfect ending for the documentary about a director remaking the perfect movie.

Archived article by Tracy Zhang