Here, von Trier asks Leth to remake his short film, “The Perfect Human”—not once, but five times, each time with specific stipulations. For example, the first go-round involves re-doing the film, originally done in Cuba, without a set, and using shots that are only 12 frames apiece, among other conditions. Remarkably, Leth produces a conceptual piece that entrances you, with the edits put together to resemble a dream, more than a jump-cutting nightmare.
But, Von Trier seems constantly displeased with the results. The second obstruction involves Leth going someplace he couldn’t bear, and then asking him to “not show it.” A bemused Leth goes to Bombay, telling us how von Trier “thinks I won’t be able to do this.” He produces the second remake of his film on an Indian street with a translucent screen behind him—he acts in the films as well, another of von Tier’s stipulations. The translucence allows us to see the Bombay locals looking on, something that pisses off von Trier, who tells Leth “You didn’t do what I asked.” He then demands a third remake, tasking him to either go back to Bombay, or “have complete freedom.” The fourth version involves redoing “The Perfect Human” as a cartoon—a genre both men both profess to hate—and von Trier does the fifth, and final, remake.
The contrast between the original 1967 “Perfect Human” and the five remakes is interesting, and what holds “The Five Obstructions” together is the interaction between the two directors. Von Trier arrogantly yet puckishly declares that he knows Jørgen Leth better than Leth knows himself—probably based on having seen “The Perfect Human” about 20 times. And yet, his attempts to force Leth to redo his original work in a way that will fall flat all fail. The 12-frame-edit version possesses a dreamy quality; keeping the Indians in the background while he eats an elegant meal clad in a tuxedo is an interesting counterpoint, in the next version. Even the “cartoon” winds up as a richly done animation that looks like moving oil paintings.
The problem with “The Five Obstructions” is the slow creep at which the deliberations between the two men proceed, and the way the two are always smiling and polite as they argue about the remakes. Leth is constantly telling von Trier how sadistic, satanic, and evil he is, but it’s not as if Leth has a gun held to his head. Perhaps it’s the intellectual challenge that’s driving him to comply with these “stumping” requests. He overcomes each artfully. The difficulty is in the incessant chatter between the two men. The remakes speak for themselves; the discussions between them tend to get in the way.
Von Trier’s most recent film, “Dogville,” pushed the limits of conventional narrative storytelling on film. Who can forget “Breaking the Waves” or “Dancer in the Dark,” the latter of which featured Bjork singing on digital video? Von Trier is a bit of an acquired taste, and if you’re only used to Hollywood fare, you will find several obstructions awaiting you here.
Even if you’re a fan, the typical American viewer will find the conflict between the two men more friendly than quarrelsome. But for those who can stick with the chattiness and the conceptual-film aspects, “The Five Obstructions” does offer riches, and proves Jørgen Leth correct: The attacker is usually the one with more to lose, and the one who winds up more exposed than the intended victim.