The Five Obstructions (2003)

My review for Movie Gazette, back in the day – and one of my favourite films.


In 1967, Danish director Jørgen Leth made a short black and white film called The Perfect Human (Der Perfekte Menneske), which declares someone (played by Claus Nissen) to be the perfect man, and then presents him engaged in a range of activities – dancing, shaving, dressing, dining, undressing, interacting with the perfect woman (Majken Algren) – in an attempt both to illustrate and to interrogate the whole notion of perfection. With its crisp images, and its ironic, aloof voice-over (narrated by Leth himself), it is as whimsical as it is profound – in short, it is a perfect film.

A great admirer of The Perfect Human, maverick director Lars von Trier challenged Leth to create several remakes of his earlier film while strictly adhering to arbitrary sets of rules which von Trier had mischievously concocted. The result is The Five Obstructions, a unique documentary which intersperses scenes from the original The Perfect Human with the meetings of von Trier and Leth to establish the rules for each remake, as well as footage of Leth working on the remakes, and of course the remakes themselves.

Lars von Trier is no stranger to the imposition of constraints on filmmakers. He was one of the co-authors of the Dogme 95 manifesto, whose ten desultory ‘Vows of Chastity’ include commandments to use only handheld cameras, to shun artificial lighting and studio sets, and to avoid all superficial action (like guns or murder). Although at first dismissed as little more than a madcap publicity stunt, Dogme 95 quickly engendered a raft of highly inventive successes (Festen, Mifune, Italian for Beginners, Open Hearts and von Trier’s own The Idiots), and its back-to-basics aesthetic, originally designed to liberate independent directors from the malign influence of Hollywood, has now, ironically enough, become a significant influence on Hollywood.

The rules which von Trier imposes on his friend and mentor Leth in The Five Obstructions have a different purpose, but a similar effect. Von Trier wants to disrupt and banalise Leth’s original film, chiselling away at its cool perfection and forcing the director to expose something of his own imperfect humanity in the remakes. So for the first remake, Leth is required to film in Cuba, and to introduce a cut every 12 frames (i.e. every half a second). In another, the elderly Leth must himself play the part of the perfect human, but in the most miserable setting that he can imagine. In the third, Leth is given the most difficult restriction of all – absolute freedom to do whatever he wants. And in the fourth, he must make a cartoon – a form which both Leth and von Trier despise. Finally he is confined to reading someone else’s scripted voice-over to a film which someone else has directed (under Leth’s name), but of which he is the elusive subject.

Yet if it is von Trier’s ‘satanic’ intention to corner Leth and squeeze a flawed piece of cinema from him, Leth instead turns each obstruction to his advantage, creating new and unexpected versions of perfection. Which makes this film a bold and entertaining exploration of art, humanity, collaborative rivalry, and the mysterious idea of perfection. Apart from offering the pleasure of seeing an old master’s creative genius at work (and a younger director’s genius at play), The Five Obstructions also documents a sophisticated conversation between two great friends, conducted through the medium of film, on the possibilities and limits of film itself.

A playfully profound work that will leave you smiling warmly.

Anton Bitel