The Five Obstructions (De fem benspænd, 2003)

Directors: Lars Von Trier and Jørgen Leth

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 1967, Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth released a seminal experimental short called The Perfect Human (Det perfekte menneske) that became something of a fetish film for another Danish director—Lars Von Trier. Leth’s film examines physical characteristics and capabilities of a representative man and woman (Claus Nissen and Majken Algren Nielsen), providing labels (“This is an ear. This is another ear.”) and descriptions of actions (“This is how the woman lays down.”) as though the film were a nature documentary for a bunch of anthropologists from another planet. Von Trier, one of the founders of the Dogme 95 movement, seemed both fascinated and cheesed off by the word “perfect” in the title of Leth’s film, as well as its artistry and unemotionalism. He set out with The Five Obstructions to save Leth from himself.

A statement I’ve quoted before from the Dogme manifesto is the driving objective behind The Five Obstructions:

Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.

It is Von Trier’s contention that Leth would be a more complete and truthful filmmaker if he could let go of imposing a vision on his material. To “help” Leth overcome this shortcoming, Von Trier devised an exercise to break Leth’s normal creative rhythms. Von Trier compels Leth to remake The Perfect Human five times, adhering to strict rules Von Trier devises. Brief moments from the original film are shown as the two directors discuss what obstructions will be put in place. After each film is finished, we and Von Trier view it in its entirety.

The first set of obstructions Von Trier devises includes sending Leth to a country he has never visited (Cuba), no built sets, and edits in post-production that can be no longer than 12 frames in length. Alas for Von Trier, these obstructions, particularly the 12-frame restriction, prove to be a gift to Leth. The staccato rhythm of Obstruction #1: Cuba adds a comic objectivity to Leth’s regard of his perfect humans, and the lush use of color creates a vibrant, tropical milieu that enlivens the repetitive moments and conveys the sensuality of the surroundings that seem to have inspired him.

Von Trier decides that Leth must have an encounter that will strike fear and loathing in him, reasoning that it will be difficult for Leth to be artistic if he is shaken up. Leth confesses that a previous trip to Bombay was very disagreeable; therefore, Von Trier sends him to Bombay and further requires that he film next to something very disturbing, but must not include the disturbance in the film. Leth decides to take the role of the perfect man himself, and the resulting film shows him acting out the dining and jumping scenes from the original film in the red light district of the city. Von Trier chastises him for placing the Indian residents behind a semi-opaque screen behind him, thereby violating the rule that they must remain off-camera. Once again, the film is intriguing and tasteful—the exact opposite of what Von Trier wants.

The next two Obstructions don’t go very well for Von Trier either, as Leth proves over and over how creative he can be—indeed, the obstructions seem to heighten his ingenuity. During his filming in a Brussels hotel, in which is he charged with answering the questions posed in The Perfect Human, he overhears a couple having loud sex. With this inspiration and the French-speaking actors he has cast, the film becomes something of a French noir. Obstruction #4: Cartoon results from Leth and Von Trier’s mutual hatred of cartoons. But again, employing Bob Sabiston, the animator of Waking Life, and sending him footage from the Bombay shoot results in the most artistic and interpretive film of the series.

The final obstruction, filmed at Leth’s home in the Dominican Republic, requires Leth to read a script that Von Trier has written—a script that admits defeat. Leth’s apparent perfection as a filmmaker precludes him from letting go and becoming a mere recorder of events. I, for one, was thrilled with his victory. I really enjoyed this fascinating experiment in boundary-testing, and confirm the pleasure I get from the creative output of a director like Leth. Each of his reimaginings of The Perfect Human is entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking.

Von Trier hasn’t always lived up to his ideals, for example, allowing the expressionism of music to communicate his characters’ truth in Dancer in the Dark. Because Dancer came out in 2000, it seems rather disingenuous for Von Trier to insist that his friend Leth eschew a similar artistry. While The Five Obstructions is something of a game between the two friends, it’s not without a philosophical purpose for Von Trier. Any filmmaker who has the nerve to issue a manifesto about the direction of cinema obviously has more than a mercenary or creative interest in his work.

Von Trier is interested in human truth, thus making Jørgen Leth and The Perfect Human ideal specimens for his “nature documentary” on “The Perfect Director.” Von Trier does not seem to want to give up creative narrative entirely, thus pushing filmmaking back to its “actuality” beginnings. But he is suspicious of the manipulations of narrative, and many cinephiles join him in a distaste for having their buttons pushed. Apparently, he does not consider the approach Robert Bresson took—of filming nonactors performing the same scene countless times until all inauthentic mannerisms and inflections were bored out of them—to have been successful. Or maybe he just wants to find another way that is not so time-consuming and precise.

Since Von Trier can’t seem to tame the creative impulse in himself, I would hazard a guess that his work now seems to be pushing audiences past their boundaries, refusing to let them tuck comfortably into a story, to arrive at this truth he keeps seeking. Maybe he’ll eventually have his breakthrough. In the meantime, successful or not, his works will continue to evolve, and that’s something that should excite any true film fan. l

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    22nd/04/2010 to 3:22 pm

    “Since Von Trier can’t seem to tame the creative impulse in himself, I would hazard a guess that his work now seems to be pushing audiences past their boundaries, refusing to let them tuck comfortably into a story, to arrive at this truth he keeps seeking. Maybe he’ll eventually have his breakthrough. In the meantime, successful or not, his works will continue to evolve, and that’s something that should excite any true film fan. ”

    So you aren’t a huge fan of DANCER IN THE DARK, BREAKING THE WAVES, DOGVILLE and the recent ANTICHRIST, eh?

    Just kidding, though for me the first three are masterworks, as well as cinematic breakthroughs, and I suspect he may not have another film in him to match them. With ANTICHRIST of course, he crossed the line for many, who derided him for self-indulgence and a far worse kind of mental breakdown.

    As far as this outstanding review and it’s subject, I’ll say my own position pretty much parallels what you say here, though perhaps on balance I like it a bit less, as it does take some serious patience:

    “I, for one, was thrilled with his victory. I really enjoyed this fascinating experiment in boundary-testing, and confirm the pleasure I get from the creative output of a director like Leth. “

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/04/2010 to 10:44 pm

    Sam, I think Von Trier will continue to be a creative force of surprise and outrage. He seems very much kin with Werner Herzog. As for the film under consideration here, I had no problem with patience at all. It all was intriguing to me, this process we spend so much time poring over on our blogs. I love experimental film, and the chance to see six related works (I watched The Perfect Human first, of course) was great fun!

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