Lars von Trier's Five Obstructions

The Five Obstructions is about Denmark’s Lars von Trier challenging his fellow filmmaker Jørgen Leth to remake his own 1967 short film The Perfect Human – incidentally – Trier’s favourite short film.

Lars Von Trier – take him or leave him. Love him or loathe him: Whichever way you look at him, he’s a one-off. A talented filmmaker, his stubborn refusal to play by conventional rules led him to dismiss what had been and set up a new set of rules, the Dogme manifesto- to ensure ”complete film” or some such nonsense. Ironically, and most likely fully intentional, The Dogme rules were more inhibiting than anything else, but made for a few good films until the novelty wore off.

The Five Obstructions is basically about Trier challenging fellow Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth to remake his own 1967 short film The Perfect Human – a seemingly “artsy” and dull cinematic exercise and – incidentally – Trier’s favourite short film.

Trier sets up a set of rules – the titular obstructions – for Leth; in one film, for example, no shot may be longer than 12 frames (Michael Bay, eat your heart out!) and it has to be shot in a place Leth has never been and so on; in other attempts, Leth must star, has to deal with no set of rules whatsoever and it goes on and on. Trier tries to come up with challenges for Leth; the purpose of this is ostensibly to expose Leth’s humanity, Leth being considered a distant observer by Trier.

This distance, Trier says, hinders Leth in his work and life. He babbles on about this being therapy rather than filmmaking; he wants there to be dirt in Leth’s work, as he himself loves it when actors do a crap job within the same parameters as they do good work. This is human. (Anyone familiar with Trier’s work can attest to his films being very human.)

There are certain laughs to be had, such as when Trier calls out to his assistant and asks whether they can afford to send Leth to Cuba. ”Is it in the budget? He has to go to Cuba” – as Leth sits there, looking baffled.

Leeth circumnavigates Trier’s obstructions deftly; each movie looks better and more compelling than the original. I realize I am probably being seduced by window dressing here – an inexcusable sin for a graphic designer – but the simple fact is that incomprehensibility in technicolour garb is still more enjoyable than monochromatic. Compare Last Year at Marienbad to Donnie Darko, for example.

Trier loses, of course. Leth remains unfazed and unflappable, rising to the challenge every time. And, this ”distant” human comes over as a rather affable person, quick to a smile and thoroughly enthusiastic about the work. The only times he seems worried is before the first obstruction, before he really knows what he’s doing, and before the fourth – and that’s mostly because he’s pissed off at having to make a cartoon, a style of filmmaking he hates. (He eventually goes to Bob Sabiston, the man behind the animations in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life for this)

The joke, of course, is that Trier ultimately shifts the focus of the film from Leth and onto himself with his final obstruction. Leth must agree to be credited as director as well as read a voice-over text that Trier has written for him. About Leth and Trier. At the end of the movie, we are treated to a visual pun based on the original movie and one wonders whether trier planed the whole thing like that. So the joke is on Leth. Or Trier. Or us.

Frankly, who cares? Did anyone really doubt it was Trier’s project? After all, the title is Lars von Trier’s Five Obstructions. Sure, you say: the obstructions were Trier’s, but the work was Leth’s. Or was it?

Trier can be an enthralling director when he stops and remembers to remove his head from his ass: See Zentropia for a compelling example of a downright exciting art film, claustrophobic and mysterious. See The Kingdom for the laughs and chills that Stephen King’s insipid remake failed to provide at all; also note how it is possible to sustain a confusing storyline by having fun. (Trier lucked out with Ernst-Hugo Jæregård’s death, though – now he doesn’t have to finish it) and lastly, The Idiots, a study in weirdness and uncomfortable situations.

Trier can also be an infuriating director, weird for weird’s sake. A veritable ball of (affected?) neurotic beahaviour, Trier is apparently afraid of flying, an agorophobic, a claustrophobic and so on. Not even Woody Allen makes so much of his state of mental health.

But it’s also readily apparent that Trier also has a large, large ego, and this movie is a very effective example of that; after all, who else would challenge his own idol to remake his best effort in order to make it less perfect?

Lars von Trier’s Five Obstructions is mostly for completists and students of the medium. The movie doesn’t give enough of anything. As a documentary, it fails, providing too little insight into the creative process, the technical aspect and the incentive to create in the first place. It also gives too little of the actual finished results, leaving us with short glimpses of the movie. In my case, I can appreciate that: I thought the original short version was a bore, so seeing the same thing five times in a row..well.

Perhaps the DVD will give us more, perhaps not. Either way, Trier will soon start shooting the follow-up to Dogville. In the meantime, he has reminded us that, yes, he’s still here. And Leth? Probably back in his villa in Haiti, smoking his stogie and enjoying the café life.