When discussing European Cinema, what is foregrounded is often the filmmaking techniques that mark the film as unique or experimental in lieu of traditional cinematic techniques. In The Five Obstructions, these so-called subversive filmmaking techniques not only mark the story as unique, but their execution and the choices behind them are the story.
A work of non-fiction (for the most part), The Five Obstructions frames the relationship between Von Trier and Leth as a positive reversal of the dynamic we see between the two female leads in Persona. Where the latter has its central duo break each other down through a reversal of power dynamics to a psychologically devastating end, The Five Obstructions uses its reversal of power dynamics to the end of inspiring and creating new art. Von Trier begins as a young presence inspired by Leth’s work, then becomes a manifestation of the trials of modern filmmaking with Leth as his long-suffering contender, and finally becomes both director and tribute maker to Leth’s champion of cinema.
Von Trier’s obstructions come off as misnomers, due to the cinematic potential that the quirks of each set of obstructions offers. Each work that Leth produces seems to be the creation of a different director, giving Leth a chance to display the range of his technical and storytelling ability, through having to create an entirely new body around the spine of what The Perfect Human is at its core. Von Trier implicitly gives himself his own set of obstructions – having to direct at a meta level, being a man directing a film about a man directing a set of films about the film he originally directed. Von Trier’s feat is making this mindboggling situation into an equal display of his and Leth’s capabilities.
Leth’s remakes of his original work are admirable, mostly because of the narrative of an aged auteur being able to once again revolutionize (by way of modernizing) his cinematic techniques, this time for a new audience, as part of a new wave of filmmaking. The creative drought Leth is in at the beginning of the film is an odd situation to find him in, due to the influential status Von Trier ascribes to him. Most directors of this status, by Leth’s age, have often found their niches long before, and have a comfortable but unique set of trademarks identified as a throughline in their body of work. The film traces Leth’s reawakening as a director discovering what makes him entirely distinct and adept as a filmmaker.
The film also traces a reawakening in Von Trier himself, from an artist known for his provocative works beforehand, into one with a surprisingly empathetic edge, capable of presenting his audience with twice the filmmaking prowess one can see in another film.