Though billed as a documentary, “The Five Obstructions” doesn’t easily fall into any category. Perhaps it’s best described as a game, in which a pair of Danish film directors from different generations spar with one another in a highly civilized, and surprisingly entertaining, fashion. The fact that one of these men, Lars von Trier, has a high level of recognition among film enthusiasts worldwide suggests this otherwise esoteric pic may receive a fair amount of international exposure, with TV unspoolings on quality channels indicated.
In 1967, Jorgen Leth made what became a famous short film, “The Perfect Human.” Shot in pristine black and white, the film examined a “perfect” man (Claus Nissen) and a “perfect” woman (Maiken Algren) as if they were anthropological specimens, observing them eating, dancing, sleeping etc, while a dry commentary described their actions as if they were lower forms of life.
Von Trier is apparently quite smitten with “The Perfect Human,” which he claims to have seen 20 times in one year. And, in 2001, he invited Leth, who now lives in unexplained exile in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to the Zentropa offices in Copenhagen to discuss von Trier’s funding an unconventional remake, with some Dogma-like restrictions.
Leth agrees to let Von Trier place five “obstructions” in his way. The first is that no shot will last longer than 12 frames, and though, initially, Leth considers this “insane” and fears the result will be “a spastic film,” he eventually turns the restriction into a lively example of pixilated cinema, which he shoots on location in Havana.
Von Trier’s next obstruction is that the second segment of the film be shot in “the most miserable place in the world.” Leth chooses the red-light district of Bombay, where he re-enacts the eating scene from the original film with himself, in tuxedo, consuming a gourmet meal while all around him are near-starving people. Von Trier, however, is dissatisfied with the segment (“It wasn’t the film I asked for”) and, while sipping wine and smoking a cigar, he gives the older man a severe dressing down.
And so it goes on, with von Trier avowing to “punish” the man he still claims to be his hero, while assigning him ever tougher restrictions. Claiming to hate cartoons, he forces Leth to shoot a segment as a cartoon (which Leth achieves superbly with the help of American artist Bob Sabiston).
It’s ironic that von Trier, with his known hatred of travel, is always seen in his comfortable office while Leth travels about all over the place, from Cuba to India, to the U.S. and Belgium, to make his film.
Von Trier’s arrogance is barely disguised, but, in the end, the wily Leth is more than a match for him. And yet, since von Trier holds the purse strings, it’s safe to assume he’s quite comfortable with the film and that, in the end, it’s nothing more than an elaborate — and enjoyable — game. It’s interesting to note the difference between the all-over-the-place style of filming of the scenes between the two men (which, presumably, von Trier directed) and Leth’s own much more controlled (and attractive) visual style for the sequences he directed.