The film “The Five Obstructions” shows the making and the breaking of works of art, as the producer von Trier challenges eccentric documentary filmmaker Jorgen Leth to remake his 1967 12-minute short “The Perfect Human” five times. With each remake, von Trier imposes seemingly arbitrary sets of conditions on the filmmaker, the “five obstructions” of the title. For one project, Leth is sent to Cuba to make a film with (among other constraints) no sets and no shot longer than 12 frames. For another, von Trier sends him to “the most miserable place on Earth” and orders him not to show it on screen, to put Leth’s “ethics to the test.”
Part documentary and part high-concept art project, “The Five Obstructions” follows the yearlong experiment as von Trier tries to stump Leth. “The trouble is everything I give to you inspires you,” smiles von Trier devilishly as he watches one finished project. “I can’t help it,” apologizes Leth as he transforms constraints into possibilities.
The documentary portion of the film, ostensibly about the creative process, is dominated by the personality of self-satisfied prankster muse von Trier. It all feels like a performance for the camera: von Trier as madman producer taunting the elder filmmaker. Leth is the modest, restrained artist, unfazed by von Trier in their production meetings but given to moments of creative panic on location while he struggles with the rules.
Leth lets his work speak for him, and the glimpses we see are so rich, so inventive and so intriguing that we want to see more. That’s the film’s big weakness: we only see bits and pieces of each film as the filmmakers choose different sequences to contrast each remake to the original. “The Five Obstructions” may never really engage with the creative process — we see little of Leth’s working method — but it is full of vivid examples of the finished product that even von Trier can’t help but fall in love with.