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FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS, THE (Fem Benspaend, De) (director/writer: Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier; screenwriters: from an idea by Mr. von Trier, based on “The Perfect Human” by Mr. Leth; cinematographer: Dan Holmberg; editors: Morten Højbjerg/Camilla Skousen; music: Henning Christiansen; cast: Jorgen Leth, Lars von Trier; Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Carsten Holst; Koch Lorber; 2003-Switzerland/Belgium/France/Denmark-in Danish, English, French and Spanish, with English subtitles)
“Somehow the humor and purpose of this project escaped me.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Five Obstructions is an odd experimental documentary (difficult to classify as anything but a curio) that mainly serves as a film-school exercise for the playful Lars von Trier–happy as a child who will not be punished for being naughty–raising eyebrows as a provocateur while playing silly mind-control games with one-time ’60s avant-garde rabble-rouser filmmaker Jørgen Leth. The two noteworthy Danish filmmakers get together in 2000, as von Trier induces his former teacher, Jørgen, to create five remakes of his 12-minute short The Perfect Human (1967). It’s a film von Trier loved, but now acts as the obstructor (setting up arbitrary, limiting and ridiculous rules in filming the remakes to throw off the perfectionist filmmaker).

The obstructions include: 1. Shooting in Cuba with no set, a country Jørgen never visited before. Also, no shot could last more than 12 frames–meaning each shot can last only for a split-second. 2. In the red light district of Bombay, considered by Jørgen “the most miserable place on Earth.” 3. When von Trier is dissatisfied with how well #2 turned out, he orders a return to Bombay for another remake. Jørgen’s plea to reshoot it in Brussels is agreed to– but, von Trier says it must be done in “complete freedom” (a way these filmmakers never shoot). 4. Trying to be more cruel than usual, von Trier insists on a straight MTV-like animated cartoon (a genre both filmmakers hate) to be made in Port-au-Prince (where the venerable Jørgen now resides). Jørgen calls on help from Bob Sabiston, who animated Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life,” and comes up with the most engaging of the remakes. 5. Not happy with Jørgen’s resourcefulness to make pleasing remakes without bending the new rules, Von Trier will make the last obstruction remake himself and have Jørgen read the narrative he writes for him.

The self-indulgent film is always entertaining but seems too insignificant to have any weight, except to show off the talents of both directors and how they play by their own rules but feel pumped up believing that it may be possible to play by someone else’s rules and still make their own film. I’m not convinced that was what happened here. It seems to me that in the end this is von Trier’s film even though he failed in his purpose to rattle Jørgen. He toyed with his “better” in a project von Trier unconvincingly states is nothing but a form of therapy–with him as the psychoanalyst and Jørgen as the patient who must completely comply to receive the proper treatment. Von Trier’s method of operating here is not any different from how he tries in his own films to make his protagonists so vulnerable that they are subjects of sadistic abuse, except here he met more than his equal in Jørgen (a filmmaker who has become neglected; it is hoped that this film will rekindle an interest in his works). There was also on von Trier’s part a desire, in good fun, to “banalize” Jørgen and gleefully reduce his work to a “spastic” film.

Somehow the humor and purpose of this project escaped me.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”