European cinema is obsessed with toeing the line between traditional rules of film and art cinema. One of the primary differences between the two is that the former fully attempts to create an experience of immersion for its viewers, while the latter seeks to remind the viewer that we are, in fact and simply put, spectators of actors acting on screen. Documentaries then, may be said to be an exemplification of breaking this immersion into story, in its recording of acutely real events actually and perhaps even presently happening in the world. However even in traditional cinema, the illusion of reality – by fostering narrative transitivity in its creation of a story – is still attempted by its directors. The Five Obstructions, on the other hand, breaks this narrative transitivity and the illusion of reality to the absolute fullest.
At first sight, the documentary is quite obviously art cinema in its unique depiction not merely of films within a film, but film production and director correspondence in the creation of these films for the film, with both directors so acutely and actively engaged on screen and acting the premise of the film itself, in what I then perceive to be the ultimate exceeding and test of the limits of traditional documentaries. The first phrase that came to mind while viewing the film given this factors is that The Five Obstructions is the ultimate fourth wall break.
Despite the premise of the film being guised as a collaboration between two renowned directors (and the return of one from retirement), we quickly perceive an aura of competition over camaraderie between them, as Leth is consistently given more and more difficult challenges, never actively praised and yet also critiqued by Von Trier. The master-student relationship actively onscreen thus gives way to a reversal of initial roles. And yet despite the increasing difficulty and ridiculousness of the obstructions, Leth nonetheless responds to them to the fullest of his capacity – even creating an animation despite his lack of knowledge of it and inherent dislike.
The premise of camaraderie and competition and the roles of power in relationships is not something we have not seen before – this may be contrasted to Persona, wherein the film premises on interactions of two characters and the subsequent relationship formed. Persona is centered on the melding of two individuals and the continuous oneness of their characters, and the power each of them hold over another at different points in the film. The Five Obstructions displays outright competition and perhaps even guarded hostility.
It is also interesting to take note that in both films that display this underlying tension and competition, both main characters of the same sex. It brings into question whether the type of camaraderie-competition relationship would have had the same intended effect if the main actors have had been of the opposite sex (the main assumption being that it would not, e.g., A Woman is a Woman).
What may initially be perceived as the film’s depiction of a collaboration between two filmmakers further grounds itself in the aforementioned portrayal of a master-student relationship that, again, quickly evolves into a competition between two masters of crafts. The reversal of power, the constant one-upping, does not come without further repercussions and the entrance of further human factors – specifically, those of imperfection, competition, and the human drive for perfection in the face of it.
Imperfection may be seen in the films Leth himself creates. As the perfect human strives to do everything perfectly, we cannot help but notice that the films document precisely how he or she does everything imperfectly, or against a backdrop of imperfection (e.g., the Mumbai scene). Exemplified by this example, we realise human imperfection becomes noticeable at the fringes of our perception, and yet paradoxically, this imperfection may be said to be made more noticeable due to our human drive (exemplified by The Perfect Human’s title and thus, inherent goal) towards perfection, that we then are made more capable to take note of imperfections. Thus, Von Trier’s critiques of Leth’s films (although interestingly, Von Trier also gives credit to imperfections relevance to film creation, “the best gift is when an actor messes up”). Leth’s drive towards perfection is fuelled by Von Trier’s critique, and the competition now deeply embedded in their consistent interactions.
Competition is animalistic. In attempting to recreate The Perfect Human, we wonder whether Von Trier is saying that the Perfect Human is one who pursues perfection, consistently and constantly in the face of imperfection, driven by the animalistic tendency of competition harbored by each and every human being. Is the perfect human then a bundle of imperfections striving towards perfection, or one who creates perfection from a multiplicity of imperfect variables? And is this perfection one that we seek inherently within ourselves, or is it exemplified and thus, made possible and perhaps even strengthened by factors of both camaraderie and competition – hence, that which defines Von Trier and Leth’s relationship.
Extra Comments: The relationship between Von Trier and Leth can be said to likewise be seen in Persona. The same underlying tension and competition between them is also seen in the two main characters – a relationship of camaraderie and competition. Aside from this, it is interesting to note how the outside world in both films have a tendency to intrude upon what is currently going on in the film. In Persona, we see films and pictures of the Vietnam War, and other events. There are references in both films to the world outside Europe, and I believe this is another thing worth exploring and thinking about. Similarities may also be seen with La’aventura in how both films seem to begin with one thing but is actually ends up being about another. Here, the beginning of the film portrays the documentary to one regarding filmmaking. At the end, we realise it is more about showing how the process of filmmaking is multifaceted.