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    The Five Obstructions

    Danes will be Danes

    Lars van Trier and J┐rgen Leth experiment with form, authorship and the conventions of film itself by remaking Leth's 1967 short film five times in "The Five Obstructions."


    An exercise in gamemanship, a cinematic graduate seminar, and a needling intervention into an aging filmmaker's twilight inertia, "The Five Obstructions" realizes its high-art aspirations while maintaining a playful, accessible tone.

    Directed by: J┐rgen Leth, Lars von Trier.
    Written by: Sophie Destin, Asger Leth, J┐rgen Leth, Lars von Trier.
    Cast: Claus Nissen, Majken Algren Nielsen, J┐rgen Leth, Lars von Trier, Daniel Hernandez Rodriguez, Vivian Rosa, Alexandra Vandernoot, Patrick Bauchau, Marie Dejaer, Pascal Perez, Meschell Perez, Bent Christensen, Anders Hove, Charlotte Sieling, Jan Nowicki, Stina Ekblad.
    Cinematography: Kim Hattesen, Dan Holmberg.
    Edited by: Morten H┐jbjerg, Camilla Skousen.
    In Danish with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    Film Forum 209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.) (212) 727-8100

    The film is is co-directed by and features Danish arthouse superstar Lars von Trier ("Dogville", "Dancer in the Dark", "Breaking the Waves"), who challenges his friend and mentor, J┐rgen Leth, to remake his 1967 short film, "The Perfect Human," five separate times under conditions set by Von Trier. Leth agrees and does remake the film the specified five times, and after each production, visits von Trier to view and discuss the finished product, and then receives the next set of conditions, or "obstruction." The conversations between Leth and von Trier, Leth's preproduction preparations for each version, and the versions themselves constitute the content of "The Five Obstructions." No prior knowledge of Leth's original short film is needed.

    Detractors of von Trier will already scent pretension and indulgence, and admirers may think this format a departure of sorts, a collateral side project designed to spotlight Leth. Neither impression is borne out.

    Von Trier's films are generally marked both by their formal experimentalism, a product of his keen interest in how form mediates subject, and by their rigor in analyzing human nature, often by portraying the communal crushing of a protagonist of "pure" motivation. "The Five Obstructions" reflects these preoccupations. On the one hand, the project permits von Trier to see, in an unusually controlled artistic experiment, how formal restraints affect the short film, and, at a higher remove, "The Five Obstructions" itself is a hydra of formal freewheelingness. On the other hand, von Trier once again picks apart a "pure" protagonist, Leth, by placing him — with a smug, almost authorial omnipotence — in unbearable situations.

    The Five Obstructions  
    For von Trier, Leth's "The Perfect Human," for all its irony, does posit a perfect human, but not on screen. Rather, the perfect human is implied behind the camera: a pure, perfect artist ... someone who cannot exist. One purpose of the obstructions, therefore, is to ungild the lily, fell the modernist fallacy, and reveal that artist as an ordinary human who cannot hide behind the perfection of his work. In an irony not lost on either, the faux-fell von Trier tries to squeeze the Leth-the-human out of Leth-the-artist by (gleefully) setting inhuman conditions, at least for the first two obstructions. Other motives also lurk, high and low, from a pupil's psychosexual fantasy of peremptorily dictating impossible (and humiliating) tasks to his now submissive master to an artist's reflexive desire to sound the creative process itself. But most of all, as von Trier desires, the film humanizes Leth the implacable, Leth the consummate, and shows the catalogue of emotions spurred by the whole project: vulnerability, doubt, triumph, affection, resentment, arousal, loneliness, and renewal.

    Yet more is going on — at a theoretical level. Because of its unpredictable nature, the film lacks traditional direction. Von Trier is more an impresario of forces, prestidigitator, and impious, impish goader than author of the work, and the collision of the forces, feints, and gestures leaves a wreckage in which film itself, as a medium and art form, lies exposed. As the obstructions progress, these questions are raised: do semi-arbitrary constraints on filmmaking, like formal conventions of verse, improve film (cf. Dogme 95 manifesto)? What is the source of admiration for art-film consumers — the film, the creative process that brings it about, or the idea of a genius standing behind the work? (Lars, should you be asking this?) Who is the artist in relation to his work? What is the relationship of an art piece to the context of its production? (The Bombay obstruction begs this question in the person of the scene-stealing, impoverished girl half-veiled behind the set's screen and fully-veiled behind Leth's willed indifference.) What does it mean to be an artist, as compared to being a human? (And the last obstruction:) Who should be credited as the maker of the fifth and final remake? Who is the maker of "The Five Obstructions"? What is authorship in film, anyway?

    The uniqueness of "The Five Obstructions" lies not simply in its theoretical sophistication, but that the sophistication is packaged with such a playful, whirling, dizzying spirit, in a pandora's box of command and countermove, stingless mockery, purposefully deflated grandeur, and marriage of sincerity and irony (brought to ideal harmony in the last obstruction). These are two largish figures in world cinema, and not a moment of their interaction and execution of the project is tinged by solemnity, self-importance or overweening self-regard, or auteur-ish condescension. To the extent it is a thoughtful inquiry into film and filmmaking, is an anti-lecture animated by an anti-gravity which does not cloak, but rather enables the power of the ideas. "The Five Obstructions" proves again that the best classes are those most like playtime.

    MAY 25, 2004

    Reader comments on The Five Obstructions:

  • A brilliant idea with a selfish motive ! ! !   from Lalit Rao, May 10, 2008

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