For his latest experiment in strange cinema, the Danish director Lars von Trier (Dogville, Dancer in the Dark) has collaborated with Jí¸rgen Leth, an elder statesman of Danish cinema whose 13-minute pseudo-documentary, The Perfect Human (1967), von Trier considers a masterpiece and an influence on his own work.
In The Five Obstructions, he challenges Leth, his former film-school teacher, to re-imagine and re-make The Perfect Human five times, each time adhering to a set of obstacles -- some of them playful, some more sober -- that von Trier places in Leth's way. Throughout The Five Obstructions, the creators show us only enough snippets of the original film and their quintet of remakes to allow us to ponder and synthesize the relationship between them all.
Von Trier dreams up his obstructions to "banalize" Leth's work and thus "to proceed from the perfect to the human." But the artifice of the original film -- a series of highly composed images of a man and a woman as they sleep, eat, dress, shave, dance, jump and so forth -- already does just that. One suspects von Trier didn't truly decide upon these obstructions all by himself, even if we never actually see Leth participate in their conception. Thus we end up with an amiable, navel-gazing dialogue between two friends who like to hang out, talk about films, and make them.
For the first go-round, von Trier sends Leth to Cuba to make a version using only half-second-long shots. "It's totally destructive," says Leth, who naturally turns the limitation into a sort of New Wave-influenced virtue. In another round, Leth plays the male lead, and as per his obstruction, he films the lavish dinner scene in front of some poverty-stricken people who watch from behind a scrim on a Bombay street. This version tests the limits of artistic morality to see where empathy -- if the solipsistic Leth is even capable of it -- begins and ends. One version is animated, one stars Patrick Bachau, and von Trier himself writes and directs the finale.
How "seriously" can we take an image of an insomniac Leth, mumbling dolefully about his obstruction, and then later watch the men celebrate with caviar and vodka, just before Leth gorges himself in front of the Bombay poor? Of course, that may be the central conceit of these two ironic artists (or it may not be). Von Trier says he's doing all of this to help Leth surrender his inner self and stop hiding behind the artifice of film technique. But these guys aren't Swedes, and I'm afraid the Danes are too cagey for that sort of thing. So The Five Obstructions is mostly just a confection for film buffs that challenges the mind and leaves the emotions pretty much unscathed. In English, Danish and a little French, with subtitles.