Anyone who makes art knows that creativity is born from limitations. The Five Obstructions idealizes this notion. Danish provocateur Lars von Trier makes a challenge to his old film professor (and renowned experimental filmmaker) Jørgen Leth: Remake his poetic 1967 short film The Perfect Human five times, according to arbitrary (and sometimes, in Leth's words, "satanic" or "diabolical") rules concocted by von Trier. The Five Obstructions is a documentary about Leth making those five remakes, filtered through von Trier's rules.
Ever since Breaking the Waves, von Trier has been imposing his own self-made limitations on his movies with varying levels of success. Indeed, he comes off in The Five Obstructions as the bad guy, a carefully cultivated image that's more annoying because it's so calculated. Von Trier's sadistic glee is the least interesting part of Obstructions, and Leth is the more compelling subject: an artist grappling with the art of making movies. When faced with the first obstruction-- where no clip must last more than 12 frames, the movie must be shot in Cuba, the questions posed by Leth's experimental short must be answered, and so on -- Leth creates a vivid, collage-poem where the 12 frame structure creates beautiful, dreamlike swirls of movement and daring editing jumps. When faced with Leth's stunning and beautiful completed work, von Trier seethes in mock exasperation: "The 12 frames were a gift!"
Leth keeps smiling and remains buoyant as von Trier continually tests his mettle. The challenges grow increasingly more difficult ("Make a film in the worst place on earth, where you are the Perfect Human!" transforms into a meditation on power, privilege, and a surprisingly touching self-criticism.) Leth is at his most lost when von Trier assigns him no rules at all, although the documentary footage of Leth wandering "lost" through hotel hallways strains the metaphor.
Unlike much of von Trier's work in recent years, which to me feels deadening and oppressive, The Five Obstructions is a work of inspiration and hope. Clearly, von Trier idolizes his mentor, Leth, even as he gently mocks him. Leth withstands all manner of mockery and comes through as a hero, a humanitarian man, and an artist who makes good on his promise to make good films despite any obstacle. The Five Obstructions may be a little too padded with Leth worrying over what he'll do, and the best parts are the challenge and the finished result of the challenge. The documentary footage in-between does serve its purpose, though, for the patient viewer. The final film culminates the whole of The Five Obstructions, and when Leth's voice-over says, "This is how the Perfect Human falls," my heart leapt for joy. If an artist learns through his failures, his weaknesses, then those cannot be separated from his strengths. The terms themselves become arbitrary. Through obstructions comes art, and one admires the courage and temerity of Leth, or any artist, through their struggle. That's not idle hero worship. Through that struggle, Leth has created works as beautiful and moving as any art I've seen in recent years.
The DVD includes Leth's original (dubbed) The Perfect Human in full.
Aka De Fem benspænd.