In Danish experimental and documentary filmmaker Jørgen Leth’s 1967 short subject The Perfect Human, a man (played by the deadpan fop Claus Nissen) and a woman (Maiken Algren) are alternately framed against a blank white canvas as the camera, and a dry, nature-film narration (voiced by Leth), scrupulously catalog their bodies and behaviors. This disarming exercise in comic anthropology counts among its admirers none other than Leth’s impish former pupil, Lars von Trier, who claims to have seen The Perfect Human more than 20 times and to sense a special kinship with its creator. It is, he says, the perfect film by the perfect filmmaker. Perhaps for that very reason, Trier, whom one suspects may have enjoyed torturing small animals as a child, proposed in early 2001 that Leth create a series of five remakes of his famous short — with the caveat that each new film adhere to a specific set of conditions (each set designated an “obstruction”) to be prescribed in advance by you-know-who.
Leth took the bait. The 90-minute documentary The Five Obstructions offers us the five finished films as well as a record of their making, and from its very first frames it exerts a powerful fascination. An inevitable fascination, even, for those among us who have spent unreasonable amounts of time gazing at flickering images in darkened movie houses. In the throes of such a worshipful, one-sided romance, the more obsessive among us — and von Trier is nothing if not that — may feel it is our duty to see every film made by a particular filmmaker or featuring a particular star, and to fill our shelves with the videos, DVDs and books that promise to bring us even closer to the source of our infatuation. Indeed, we may even dream of meeting our cinematic heroes — rather like that Iowa farmer who once stumbled upon “Shoeless Joe” Jackson in his cornfield — confident that a stimulating dialogue and exchange of ideas would ensue. Not many of us, though, possess Trier’s alchemic ability to organize just such a meeting, or his confidence that sadism is the sincerest form of flattery.
Indeed, we are not far into The Five Obstructions before it becomes apparent that this reversal of the teacher-student relationship springs as much from a giddy patricidal impulse as it does from filial devotion. The stated goal of Trier’s experiment is to see how effectively Leth can adapt the concept of The Perfect Human from the airless, “perfect” realm occupied by its original filming to a more recognizably “human” landscape — or, as Trier puts it, to “banalize” both his erudite mentor and his movie. In assigning his first obstruction, Trier dictates that the new film must be made in Cuba, using real locations instead of the original’s antiseptic studio environs, and — here’s the kicker — must, given Leth’s propensity for long takes, contain no shot lasting longer than 12 frames. When Leth returns several months later, having not only followed his instructions to the T, but having made a pretty damn good film in the process, Trier’s disappointment is palpable. Clearly, the first obstruction was far too permissive, and so more demanding ones follow, including one that orders Leth to film “things that hurt” and another that requires him to work in a film style — animation — he personally detests.
Unfolding over the next two years, Leth’s subsequent journey (dotted by periodic check-ins with Prof. Trier) is a dizzying magic-carpet somersault through juxtaposed film forms and genres. Most exhilarating, though, is how — as we travel from Bombay’s red-light district to the Austin animation studio where Richard Linklater’s Waking Life was born and to a Brussels hotel that provides the setting for a moody, split-screen neo-noir featuring La Collectionneuse star Patrick Bauchau — the basic form of The Perfect Human proves so durable a crash-test-dummy, how little it is affected by Trier’s tireless efforts at destruction. Of course, The Five Obstructions is, primarily, an exuberantly playful exercise in filmmaking gamesmanship. Yet, at the same time, it works on several more substantial, subterranean levels — as an engaging commentary on the nature of authorship and, intentionally or not, as a surprisingly confessional auto-portrait of its own cagey puppetmaster. Try as he mayt to remain in total control of the experiment, and to keep the spotlight always on Leth, it is Trier who ultimately undergoes the more naked reveal. He appears to us, in the end, less as Leth’s infernal tormentor than as his own — a lonely soul desperate to break free from perfection’s tempting allure and embrace all that is uncertain, varied and (yes) human.
THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS | Directed by JØRGEN LETH and LARS VON TRIER | Produced by CARSTEN HOLST | Released by Koch Lorber Films | At the Nuart