The Five Obstructions

The Five Obstructions


Reviewed by: Chris

Have you ever watched a von Trier film and felt your insides turned out? The moral ambiguity of Breaking The Waves? the difficult subject matter of Dancer In The Dark? or the feeling of unsupportable moral righteousness in Dogville? Von Trier knows how to get to you. Each time I see his Dogme95 film, The Idiots, I cringe with the dilemma of whether or not it is subversive and objectionable when in reality it is simply hard-hitting drama.

How does he achieve his ends? How does he produce such original cinema? We get more clues in The Five Obstructions than in any other film. We watch von Trier enter into an intellectual challenge with another celebrated director, Jørgen Leth. Leth has made an acclaimed 13-minute short (The Perfect Human). As an aesthetic experiment, they agree that the film will be remade five times, but with von Trier putting difficulties (obstructions) in the way each time.

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The first obstruction is simple enough: no single edit will be longer than 12 frames. The immediate conclusion is that any film remade under such conditions will be a hopeless mess, but Leth produces a work of art. When von Trier makes him remake it as animation, we expect something trivial, but the result is a work of rare beauty. Von Trier pushes Leth more and more. “How far are you prepared to go if you’re not describing things?” he asks. The final obstruction is deeply moving, both for the director and for us. The artist has exposed part of himself that he was not aware of, has become the vehicle for, rather than the creator, of his work. (There are also many in-jokes for fans of Dogme95).

The process is reminiscent of another artist, Matthew Barney (Drawing Restraint 9, Cremaster), who likens effort-resistance-effort to the work and achievement of an athlete. Leth is forced by fairly arbitrary rules into he finds physically or artistically repellent, but pushes himself, against all the odds, to produce artistic excellence. It is as if the fighter needs an opponent, a restraining force that is outside himself, to truly develop and demonstrate his skill. Something to kick against. The result is creativity that could not be planned – a complete antidote to the current tendency in America to look at bankability and artistry sufficient only to fulfill current trends.

But The Five Obstructions goes further. Von Trier says he wants to proceed "from the perfect to the human". The Perfect Human is already a good film. It treats its subject in an anthropological way and makes us ask many questions about what it means to be a human being, or what it means to be human. Von Trier wants Leth to answer the questions. As its crowning achievement, The Five Obstructions looks at that element of humanity that is within us but beyond us, like creativity itself, an element that depends on another person and is key to being human.

As an artistic achievement, The Five Obstructions is a film to visit repeatedly. I watch it about once a year – if only to get my head round the implications of the last Obstruction.

Reviewed on: 06 Jan 2008
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Lars von Trier asks Jorgen Leth to make five films by his rules.
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Director: Jorgen Leth, Lars von Trier

Writer: Jorgen Leth, Lars von Trier, Sophie Destin, Asger Leth

Starring: Jorgen Leth, Lars von Trier

Year: 2003

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Denmark


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