During an interview in March, Lars von Trier told me he was a great admirer of The Alexandria Quartet, a lavishly sensual and exotic work of fiction by the late British novelist, poet, diplomat and travel writer Lawrence Durrell. Given that the left-wing director’s recent film, Dogville, was the most austere cinematic work imaginable, his fondness for a right-leaning bon vivant like Durrell was surprising. But it may shed light on his fascination with his fellow Dane Jorgen Leth, the subject and co-director, with Trier, of the sparkling new documentary feature The Five Obstructions.
Poet, documentary filmmaker, sports commentator, foreign correspondent, jazz critic, diplomat, table-tennis champion — those are just a few of the titles Leth has amassed over the years. Now 67 years old, he is still a handsome man — a handsome Renaissance man, in fact. He has two business cards. One states that he is the director of the Nordisk Film company. The other, issued by his government, states that he is Denmark’s honorary consul in Haiti, a position he has held since 1991. No wonder the pinched, neurotic Trier, who is terrified of flying and travels reluctantly if at all, idolizes this peripatetic senior statesman of Danish cinema. “There are a few subjects in life I consider myself an expert on, and Jorgen Leth is one of them,” says Trier in the film.
“I think he does have a fascination with me,” Leth agrees during an interview at the Tribeca Grand Hotel in downtown New York. “How could I disclaim that? And how could I not see that it was a very good reason to do a film together? I’m always doing films about people or things that I’m fascinated by. So if he’s fascinated by my manners, or my behavior, and also my films, then that’s fine. It’s a very good starting point, I think.”
The true starting point for Obstructions is The Perfect Human, a 12-minute film Leth made in 1967 that Trier counts as being closer to him than any other. In it, we see a “perfect human” eating, shaving, dancing, dressing, sleeping, trimming his fingernails, and musing in an empty white room, sometimes in the company of a woman. Viewed now, the film has the flavor of a 1960s Pop Art time capsule. (Leth has made dozens of documentaries since then, including 1968’s Life in Denmark, 1981’s 66 Scenes From America and 1991’s Haiti, Untitled.)
Again and again in The Five Obstructions, as Trier obliges Leth to remake The Perfect Human in accordance with different rules (or “obstructions”) drawn up, often in whimsical fashion, by Trier himself, he forces the dapper, Armani-wearing director out of his comfort zone. In remake No. 2, for example, Trier has Leth, himself playing the perfect human, devour a lavish meal (recalling a key scene in the original film) in the red-light district of Bombay, surrounded by beggars and diseased, impoverished prostitutes. The intention, it appears, is both to rattle Leth 0and to lay bare the excesses of Western capitalism in a Third World setting.
While Leth doffs his cap to Trier’s intellectual brilliance (“I could never second-guess him, never — I was slow compared to him,” he admits), he is almost scornful of the notion that eating a solo banquet surrounded by beggars could put him off his food. “What the hell?” he says. “This is just another artistic game for me. Of course it’s provocative, of course I’m nervous when I’m sitting there, and of course I’m aware of the poor people, but I enjoy it! I enjoy performing it!”
There is no doubt in Leth’s mind that Trier was trying to make him lose his cool during the making of the film. To which his response was: Bring it on.
“I don’t think a game is fun if it’s not threatening in a way,” he says in his calm, unruffled manner. “There must be some punishment if you don’t do it right, and I felt punishment was around the corner all the time. This is part of the game, and I think Lars likes dangerous games. I happen to like them also. I was a champion in table tennis, so I know a little about playing.”