Judge Mike Pinsky wrote this review on a Hello Kitty magnadoodle, while hanging upside down over a vat of day-old clam chowder. Beat that, Jørgen Leth!
"My plan is to proceed from the perfect to the human, right?"—Lars Von Trier
In 1967, Jørgen Leth composed a crystalline short film, "The Perfect Human." Tightly constructed, it is an experiment in objectivity, the body segmented, analyzed, abstracted almost to the point of sacrificing all specificity. A gangly figure lights a pipe; a woman brushes her hair. Both man and woman dress. The narrator dissects the elements of each body, observing movement in a boundless room. "The Perfect Human" is like a nature documentary made by aliens, calculating the exterior form of humanity without understanding the internal motivations. Why does that man dance? What does that woman want?
Lars Von Trier, Scandinavian cinema's enfant terrible, loves Jørgen Leth, and he loves "The Perfect Human"—"this little gem," he calls it, "that we are now going to ruin." Lars Von Trier is a wicked, wicked man. But he is a wicked man with a sense of humor. Leth has long been his idol, and Von Trier has never hesitated to pull down idols his entire career—even when he builds them himself. Von Trier's plan: force Leth to remake "The Perfect Human" five times, each effort blocked by increasingly diabolical obstructions. Does Von Trier want his mentor to fail, in order to validate the subjective nature of art over the objectivity of the camera? Or does he merely want this to hurt?
At first glance, The Five Obstructions resembles the worst sort of pretentious art film. It is a film about filmmaking, in which filmmakers obsess over their craft and the notion that films speak to deep subjects like Life and Art. Lars Von Trier has often been accused of such things, and for good reason. He is seen as a dogmatic champion of obscurity, with contributions like the polarizing Dogville and the Dogme 95 movement. But Von Trier seems to love breaking rules even more than making them—and indeed, his ferocity in defense of cinema is often countered by an equally fierce rejection of even the cinematic conventions that he invents.
So what happens when Lars Von Trier makes a documentary, a genre which (because of its adherence to the real world) is often bound by seemingly insurmountable rules? Be authentic. Be linear. It might seem that the documentary form involves hurdling a series of obstructions (real events, difficult people) to arrive at some solution: Discover the truth.
Von Trier's first step: Take control of the documentary out of his hands. While he gets primary credit for The Five Obstructions, this really is not Lars Von Trier's show. Jørgen Leth is the driving force behind the film, even if his efforts are prodded (or hampered, as Von Trier might suggest) by his more mercurial pupil. The foundation for The Five Obstructions is "The Perfect Human." It is such a clever piece of work that it has overshadowed the rest of Jørgen Leth's career. Sure, he has made documentaries for years and is still quite active, but it is "The Perfect Human" for which he will always be known.
The Five Obstructions is about the creative process. It is also about the mind of a man. Von Trier implicitly takes on the role of the narrator in Leth's original short: interrogating from the outside, playing devil's advocate. Leth is the perfect human under scrutiny. He must perform in every sense of the word. And he does, with each incarnation of "The Perfect Human" a triumph of invention.
Von Trier sets the rules at each stage of the game. First, the film must be made entirely in Cuba, with no edit exceeding 12 frames (about ½ second). And all questions asked in the previously-ambiguous film must be answered. Second obstruction: Shoot the film in Bombay's red light district (chosen here as "the most miserable place on Earth"), but do not show the misery directly. Leth must play the man in the film. Third: Increasingly frustrated by Leth's triumphs, Von Trier devises the ultimate obstruction. Complete freedom. No rules at all. So Leth muses about freedom itself, as he loses his humans in a moody city (Brussels) filled with technology and connects them through a shady liaison.
Von Trier and Leth apparently hate cartoons. I suspect this stems from their insistence on the camera's power to objectify, which cartoons, not being live action, lack. Would a cartoon documentary thus be impossible (apart perhaps from The Mystery of Picasso)? Just a speculation. Anyway. So Obstruction #4 is to make a cartoon. Von Trier wants the film to be stupid and awful, but Leth enlists Waking Life artist Bob Sabiston to produce a luminous exploration of the line between image and textuality, weaving together pieces of all previous incarnations of "The Perfect Human" with a few bits of noir only hinted at earlier.
In the fifth obstruction, Von Trier takes over, after a fashion, and brings all the elements together for a fittingly reflective conclusion—along with the suggestion that the entire project itself might serve as a sort of final obstruction which the audience has climbed over the last hour and a half.
Yeah, it sounds kind of artsy. But the clever interplay between the coolly mature Leth and the Machiavellian Von Trier gives the film a playful and witty quality that belies any hint of stuffiness in the "Perfect Human" shorts Leth crafts along the way. The Five Obstructions also works as a savage parody of the "reality game" craze. Think Project Greenlight meets Fear Factor. But is the real prize the creation of art, or is it the secret of the creative process itself?
The greatest strength of The Five Obstructions is also its greatest weakness. We never do learn how Leth creates, what drives him as an artist. Von Trier's attempts to make Leth "abject" and reveal his fallibility falter, because ultimately, Von Trier can only get Leth to admit his fallibility by putting those words in his mouth. Just as the narrator in "The Perfect Human" struggles to understand the mysteries of the human mind, Von Trier and Leth leave the Jørgen Leth of this film at arm's length. Thus, Von Trier's cruel game is a glorious failure and a quixotic success all at once.
After all this, you long for Von Trier to pull off the mask and tell you what is really going on. But Von Trier has spent much of his career crafting himself as his most memorable character, and there is little chance he will reveal himself here. Instead, Jørgen Leth provides a somewhat disappointing commentary track, with very long gaps and occasional comments that are hard to hear—because someone at Koch Lorber forgot to mix the sound from the feature down so we could hear the commentary properly. The studio also only offers an indifferent 2.0 soundtrack, which suffices for the dialogues between Von Trier and Leth, but does not do justice to the various "Perfect Human" remakes. The original 1967 version of "The Perfect Human" is included (we only see snippets during the feature, with its Danish soundtrack), but it is slightly misframed and only includes an English dub.
If you are afraid of "art films," The Five Obstructions is not likely to change your mind. It plays too many games to allow its audience a comfortable evening's entertainment. But it also has a cruel sense of humor, and some inventive filmmaking by Jørgen Leth, who clearly blossoms under the heat of Von Trier's critical gaze. The Five Obstructions is a film about the magic of cinema—and the struggle to make that magic look effortless.
Lars Von Trier may be a naughty boy, but he may yet save European cinema for all of us.
The court rules that since Lars Von Trier has to live with himself, that is punishment enough. Jørgen Leth is released. Koch Lorber is given a stern warning this time around for its indifferent approach to this intriguing film. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• Audio Commentary by Actor Jørgen Leth
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