An unclassifiable film-school exercise—one part documentary, one part psychodrama, and one part mock manifesto—The Five Obstructions mainly serves to illuminate the game-like nature of Lars von Trier’s aesthetic project.
Hey, hey, little Lars wants to play. No director since Brian De Palma has raised more hackles than von Trier (although the more sadistic and less humorous Michael Haneke has certainly tried). Continuing on his merry way, the Danish provocateur commissions his former teacher, documentarian Jorgen Leth, to remake one of Leth’s early films, a 12-minute rumination on the nature of our species called The Perfect Human (1967), according to impossible rules that von Trier will gleefully provide.
Leth agrees to the contest and is charged to shoot his new version of The Perfect Human in Cuba, a country he has never visited, and edit it so that no shot will exceed a half-second. Leth’s concern that he will produce a “spastic” film proves groundless—he turns the constant jump cuts to his advantage. Mildly disappointed, von Trier next dispatches Leth to “the most miserable place on Earth” (Bombay’s red-light district) to make The Perfect Human again, this time starring himself.
The Five Obstructions is an essay on art as a matter of solving problems posed by a capricious deity—that is, an exposé of von Trier’s own method, both of making a movie and directing actors. Von Trier compares this to therapy, although Leth hardly seems convinced. Eventually, he will be punished for his cleverness when von Trier withdraws his rules. Von Trier confesses that his desire is to “banalize” Leth and reduce him to the situation of “a tortoise on his back.” But he fails once more when Leth proves resourceful enough to make something in a mode that both men profess to despise.
Of course, in documenting Leth’s successive versions of The Perfect Human, as well as his discussions with von Trier (and even their private observations), Obstructions inevitably develops another narrative. Leth and von Trier may be disdainful of animated cartoons, but anyone familiar with the punchline of Chuck Jones’s Duck Amuck will anticipate the final trick that insures this movie will belong to von Trier.