ARCHIVE REVIEW: The Five Obstructions

The Five Obstructions
Directed by: Jorgen Leth & Lars von Trier
Written by: Jorgen Leth & Lars von Trier
Starring: Jorgen Leth, Lars von Trier, Patrick Bauchau, and Anders Hove

Fans of Danish auteur Lars von Trier likely know his penchant for sadism, both on and off the screen.  Until The Five Obstructions, we’ve had to take Bjork’s word on the off screen part.

Though there are no grueling executions, rapes or scenes of graphic mutilation, von Trier does have his way with one of his idols, director Jorgen Leth.  He challenges him to recreate one of his earlier films, The Perfect Human, five different times with different rules, or “obstructions,” each time.

There’s a vitality and sense of mischief and cunning to this movie that you don’t typically get in non-fiction films.  Leth doesn’t like to show that he’s being gotten to, but when von Trier declares he is disappointed in the second version of the film, it leaves a mark.

That’s von Trier’s goal.  He wants to challenge and push this filmmaker he idolizes, but he also wants to leave a lasting impression on him.  The short films we get a glimpse of are brilliant proof that both men succeed in a way.

The Perfect Human is essentially a narrator describing a man and a woman.  They are doing very commonplace things like shaving or jumping, but the biting voice-over adds layers of depth.  The remakes are essentially the same thing with huge jumps in stylistic execution.

Some of the more challenging obstructions Leth are faced with come right out of the gate with the first film.  None of his edits can be longer than 12 frames, which essentially means he is cutting almost ever second or two.  It also must be filmed in Cuba with no constructed set.  This short is as mesmerizing as it is head-spinning.

The two other films that stick out are a noir drama shot entirely with dual screens and the cartoon version.  The noir one is hypnotic as it follows a weary old man through a city and a lone woman in the back of a car.  Describing it is like describing a David Lynch movie; you just need to see it.

When it gets to the cartoon, all bets on the expected are off.  Leth really outdoes himself with this one, bringing in footage from all his previous versions of The Perfect Human, animating them, and creating one of the most visually stunning pieces of animation you’re ever likely to see.

That second version of the film that disappoints von Trier also disappoints the audience.  It’s not an exceptionally bad version, but it is just Leth eating a piece of fish in front of a transparent wall in Bombay’s red light district.  It sounds bizarre, and it is.  The rest of the movie is no different, but the other films are much better.

For the fifth obstruction, though it may seem like a cop out, von Trier makes the film, and Leth must put his name on whatever surfaces.  It ends up being a somewhat touching, somewhat brutal tribute to the man that has inspired von Trier.  It’s a good way to close a movie about the nature of creativity, one that brilliantly and carefully captures the very essence of film making.

Grade: A-

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