The Five Obstructions

"Excellent"

The Five Obstructions Review


An eccentric and intrepid testament to the pure joy of cinema, "The Five Obstructions" is what happens when one of the world's most audacious filmmakers -- Las von Trier, founder of the minimalist Dogme95 movement and director of "Breaking the Waves," "Dancer in the Dark" and "Dogville" -- decides to challenge his artistic mentor to a duel of intellect and imagination.

The semi-documentary begins with a simple conversation between von Trier and prolific Danish writer-director Jorgen Leth, in which the student presents his one-time teacher with a challenge too thought-provoking to refuse: Leth is to direct five remakes of his 1967 short "The Perfect Human," and for each version von Trier will impose creative restrictions to see if the filmmaker can rise to the occasion.

Leth, a kindly, long-faced intellectual in his 60s, enters into the agreement enthusiastically but almost immediately comes to realize he's made a deal with the devil. The childish, egotistical von Trier delights in tormenting him with what seem like increasingly impossible hurdles.

The illusory original "Perfect Human," glimpsed in segments over the course of this film, is a beautifully stark, crisp black-and-white film that explores in deceptively simple ways what it means to be human -- what it is to walk or talk, to dance and jump, to dress and undress, to shave, sleep, dream and eat.

With a villainous smirk, Von Trier calls it "a little gem that we're now going to ruin." But part of what makes "The Five Obstructions" such a magnificent celebration of the cinematic art is that no matter what limits the younger filmmaker imposes upon the elder, in the almost malicious hope of tripping him up, Leth foils him at every turn.

For the first remake, von Trier commands that no cut shall be longer than twelve frames (half of a second), that all the rhetorical questions asked in the intangible narration of "The Perfect Human" must be answered, and that the film must be shot in Cuba. Already irritated and pondering out loud about how he might even begin to shoot such a film, Leth makes the mistake of saying "I would like to build a room there, or we could use a screen..."

"What a pity," replies von Trier. "In that case you can't do that."

But much to von Trier's unmistakable frustration, the film Leth turns in -- after "The Five Obstructions" follows him to Cuba to document the shoot -- is a stroke of near-genius, using repeated images in a style reminiscent of stop-motion animation to re-envision "The Perfect Human" in a way that leaves the original's simplicity intact while embracing the color and culture of his location.

Trying to up the ante for round two of their bout, von Trier demands that, among other restrictions, Leth shoot in the most miserable place he can imagine -- but that he cannot show the misery. So Leth travels to a dilapidated red-light district in a Bombay slum, and his solution to this challenge is inspired and exquisite in the way it turns the location and circumstances into an elusive, ambiguous, strangely forbidding beauty.

Trumped again, Von Trier gets upset because he thinks Leth bent the rules (he didn't and von Trier is just being a sore loser). "So," he says, "I have to punish you somehow."

And so it goes through three more spellbinding segments that become increasingly thorny and increasingly creative, culminating in a diabolical twist that only someone as devious and supercilious as von Trier could devise.

To keep the film down to a brisk 90 minutes, "The Five Obstructions" shows only highlights of each "Perfect Human" remake -- which means the ultimate "Five Obstructions" experience may be seeing it in the future on an extras-packed DVD. But the wondrous imagery with which Leth defeats each obstruction justifies a trip to the theater if the option is available to you.



The Five Obstructions

Facts and Figures

Run time: 90 mins

In Theaters: Friday 21st November 2003

Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 52 Rotten: 7

IMDB: 7.5 / 10

Cast & Crew

Starring: Claus Nissen as The Perfect Man - from 'Det perfekte menneske' 1967, as Himself - Obstructor / Lars von Trier, Majken Algren Nielsen as The Perfect Woman, from 'Det perfekte menneske' 1967), Jacqueline Arenal as The Perfect Woman, Daniel Hernandez Rodriguez as The Perfect Man, as The Perfect Woman, as The Perfect Man / Speaker / Speaker, as Naked Man, from "Notater om kærligheden" 1989 featured in segment "Obstruction #4 - The Perfect Human: Cartoon", Pascal Perez as Couple, Meschell Perez as Couple, Marie Dejaer as Maid, Bent Christensen as Gangster from "Det gode og det onde" 1975 featured in segment "Obstruction #4 - The Perfect Human: Cartoon", Stina Ekblad as Woman with money, from "Notater om kærligheden" 1989 featured in segment "Obstruction #4 - The Perfect Human, Jan Nowicki as Man with jacket, from "Notater om kærligheden" 1989 featured in segment "Obstruction #4 - The Perfect Human, Charlotte Sieling as Naked Woman - from "Notater om kærligheden" 1989 featured in segment "Obstruction #4 - The Perfect Human: Cartoon", Bob Sabiston as Himself, Jørgen Leth as Speaker / Himself - Director / Speaker / The Perfect Man / Speaker / Speaker / Jørgen Leth / The Perfect Human / Speaker

Also starring:

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