The Five Obstructions (2003) is my personal favorite of all the movies we have watched in our European film class so far. It’s challenging, insightful, and heartfelt all at the same time. Beyond giving us a look at the trappings of film-making, it provided us some powerful insights on the volatility of art. I couldn’t get my eyes off of the screen as Lars von Trier and Jorgen Leth embark on an artistic journey to reinterpret Leth’s short film The Perfect Human.
An underlying theme in the film is how the obstructions were geared towards reducing perfection and challenging perfection to its limits. It was as if the Perfect in The Perfect Human was being distilled off in order to arrive at the Human. It felt like von Trier was invested in seeing his idol fail–but in his failure, arrive at something human. Despite von Trier’s obstructions, Leth pulls off these masterful reinterpretations of his original work that von Trier can’t help but gush over. The back-and-forth between the two directors added to the charm of the movie. I especially enjoyed how demanding the tone von Trier used when he was giving out the obstructions.
The first obstruction was pretty standard and straightforward an obstruction. It was a matter of execution and the technical workings behind the film. Location, editing, script–these are all things directors could edit, manipulate, and ultimately pull off. It’s sort of a surface level attempt at imperfection, like what would happen to a car if it didn’t get washed for a month. The finished product felt familiar and had the markings of the original. I particularly enjoyed the result of von Trier’s 12-frame imposition.
The second obstruction was a little more difficult to pull off because it immediately involved the director. Leth is assigned to recreate his short film in a place he considers a personal hell, and the final product should reflect what he experienced without it being visible in the recreation. Would perfection remain unscathed if the artist undergoes something tragic, something horrible? I think Leth’s experience is comparable to writing a paper on poverty, going on immersion in the poorest places of Manila, and being forced to rewrite the same paper. The finished product was up to von Trier’s standards, but he did not appreciate Leth’s genius technique of using a translucent material to partially cover the people of Bombay around him.
The third obstruction, as a punishment for Leth’s violation in the previous obstruction, was no obstructions at all. Now I understand Leth’s apprehension towards this obstruction. Perfection is defined by the parameters upon which the work is evaluated. But what happens if there are no parameters? What becomes of perfection then? Without challenges to overcome and rules to follow, could art still hold meaning and beauty?
The fourth obstruction is my favorite. I think at this point, von Trier has made his intentions of arriving at something messy and as human as possible exceedingly clear. So using a medium such as cartoon animation in which everything is calculable and manipulable to create and convey something imperfect is a very intelligent move on our challenger’s part. I thought the sequence of events leading to this imposition was ironic because von Trier was talking about how beautiful moments can be captured in the spontaneity and unpredictability of human acting, and then he proceeds to assign this obstruction. Leth comes up with a gorgeous animation which von Trier just gobbles up and showers in praises.
The fifth obstruction was so sickeningly sweet and it’s just a nice way to wrap up such a great film. It was von Trier’s love letter to his idol, still retaining that cockiness he had throughout the film with him putting words in Leth’s mouth. Here he addresses his intentions in starting this little project with Leth. It’s great to see this side of von Trier. Having watched some of his films and having a sense of how his mind operates, it’s kind of adorable to know that he is capable of having actual human feelings.
However masterful all the reimaginations of The Perfect Human were, we see how the sense of perfection in the original is reduced and reinterpreted in so many different ways. Although I must admit that these revamps of the original were kind of confusing in a sense that I didn’t know what they were trying to convey, witnessing the process of challenging and creating art makes the movie a really great watch for me. I have a feeling I will be thinking about this film for a while.