Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth’s The Five Obstructions (2003) features its two directors as its sole protagonists, with the former challenging the latter, his mentor and good friend, to a series of filmmaking challenges he calls “obstructions” in which Leth is asked to remake his film The Perfect Human, von Trier’s favorite film, a total of five times, each remake with a different twist and instruction.
Despite being a very recent offering, The Five Obstructions could be considered one of the more advanced films for new fans of European film. I say this because most, if not all of the noted staples of European cinema according to Wollen (1972) were present in the film.
For instance, what was immediately striking about The Five Obstructions was that the plot once again was far from linear. Narrative intransitivity was very much present; although the five obstructions were shown in what seemed to be chronological order, none of these seemed to build off each other and presented fresh starts and clean slates each time. As a result of this approach, the scenes were segmented, episodic, and never necessarily transitioned into each other smoothly, with loose ends hardly being tied up and leaving the viewers to make sense of each event. Especially in the film’s opening moments, the audience’s full attention is demanded in order for them to make sense of the on-screen scenarios.
Multiple diegesis was also very much present. Even though the two protagonists an were the only two elements that remained constant throughout the entire film, nothing in the film seemed to exist solely to tie each obstruction together. To an extent, the environment each obstruction was taken up in seemed to be a world of its own.
The film’s articulation of these individual worlds are where European cinema’s unpleasure and estrangement played out. For instance, strange and unusual images were shown in the scenarios of The Perfect Human, as one particular obstruction portrayed a luxuriously-dressed Leth in the middle of poverty. I felt this kind of visual stimulus alone provoked my sensibilities rather than cause entertainment or pleasure. This occurred many more times throughout the film as each obstruction gave them viewer something to ponder intensely about, enough to be a distraction at times. Estrangement, on the other hand, was obvious in that the characters within the aforementioned film (including the perfect man himself) did not actually contribute to the film’s plot unfolding or to the dialogue and themes in any way.
A certain dedication to theatrics and experimentation is present in the film’s finest details. Everything from the dialogue and word choice of dramatic words (obstruction, suffering, torture) to the concepts and execution (limiting the sudden use of film animation) is creative, unconventional, and wildly eclectic in the way only European cinema seems to have the capacity to present.
I feel as though the film was heavy with themes of self-discovery; this became more evident as each obstruction was overcome, particularly towards the end where the film seemed to find itself launched into a deeply reflective and relatable commentary on the human psyche. What the film ultimately left with me as a viewer is the idea that the idea of perfect evolves, and this notion holds truest for artists aiming for just that. In Leth’s rehashing the same idea five times we see the misery of struggle, of work and toil, but ultimately this only serves to reveal a certain perfection in the struggle, as the fifth obstruction reveals his most authentic self having gone through the first four and escaped his comfort zone. The film’s experimental edge also comes in that the obstructions were a way to demonstrate cultural ideas of the perfect man (Cuba, cigarettes, etc.).
By the end of the movie, closure does not come in the way the plot’s progression would have its viewers expecting. Audiences eventually find that the goal was not simply the accomplishment of the five different obstructions but something much more human and much more meaningful. While not necessarily a complete rejection of proper closure, this demonstrates aperture in a number of ways; the film’s end is rich with equally valid meanings that any viewer can glean a message from. Both protagonists are also to an extent self-aware about the meanings of the entire experience and how these might affect them later on.