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Voice-over (from "Det perfekte menneske" 1967) /
Himself - Director (segments "The Conversations") /
Voice-over (segment "The Perfect Human: Cuba," segment "The Perfect Human: Bombay," segment "The Perfect Human: Cartoon") /
Himself -The Perfect Man - Voice-over (segment "The Perfect Human: Avedøre, Denmark")
"The Five Obstructions", a 100 min. Dano-Belgian theatre documentary directed by Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth. An investigative journey into the phenomenon of "documentary", based on manifestos written by each director. About a filmmaker not only revisiting, but also recreating (not in a conventional sense) one of his first films, The Perfect Human / Det perfekte menneske (1967), a document on life in Denmark, containing the familiar Leth idiosyncrasies. Written by
Six films within a film. What's left? First they deconstructed, now they're reconstructing? Or is this merely further deconstruction of the deconstructed? Whatever it may or may not be, isn't it all a bit like pacing back and forth, back and forth, wearing a rut in the carpet?
The film has 3 components:
I. In 1967 Jørgen Leth made "The Perfect Human," an aseptic, detached, ultramodern, minimalistic, black-and-white short that Lars Von Trier swears he's seen at least 20 times and related to more than any other piece of celluloid in his life. It's a cerebral study that through willful self-consciousness forces you to concentrate on the act of perceiving, the artifice of film, and the intrusion of human will on reality that is "Art." A man in a tuxedo, against a blank white background, snaps his fingers and gyrates to unheard music while a voice intones, "This is the perfect man." We regard The Human as object, discussed by a voice which is also an object. The subject, the "I," is missing. Action is reduced to stasis. This short appears in bits and pieces throughout the whole film.
II. Fast forward to present time, a documentary of Von Trier chatting amiably with Leth, dictating terms under which the latter is to revisit, and thus reinvent, his past by remaking "The Perfect Human." We learn as the film progresses that these terms, or "obstructions," are meant to coerce Leth out of artifice into naked unselfconscious expression, into confronting himself and truth. Consider a man running an obstacle course. If the obstacles are sufficiently difficult or complex, the man has to do everything he can just to surmount them. He has no energy left over for superfluities or distractions. He may even forget that he is running a race. The man of action, commanding all his resources, is purely himself, his humanity exposed.
Von Trier, as is well known, wants film to be both film and non-film, to be true to itself and to transcend itself, an irresolvable paradox that some, myself included, would say is self-imposed and, well, obstructive. Can something be both transparent and opaque? That's the postmodernist's dilemma.
The present-time documentary also includes Mr. Leth preparing for and making his 5 films, and the two reviewing the finished results.
III. Finally, there are the remakes, or "Obstructions," themselves. The original is not remade in its entirety in any of the "Obstructions," nor are they literal, faithful reproductions. Rather, the remakes are loosely based on the original.
"Obstruction One" is conditioned on no take lasting longer than 12 seconds, on it being filmed in Cuba because Leth has never been there, on all the questions asked in the original by the narrator being answered, and so on. Because it is the first, it is the best. We see the raw bones of film, the magician's legerdemain unmasked, the denuded reconstruction of a deconstruction (or is it the deconstruction of a deconstruction?). Particularly memorable is a woman reclining on a divan, a restive mechanical human animal, its breathing jerky, chopped up in short takes.
In the second "Obstruction," Leth is required to go to the most horrible place he knows on earth, but not show the horror. In the third, he is given no rules. The fourth requires him to remake his film in the form of a cartoon.
Thus the grand structure of the movie is a chess game, the film maker vs. his fan, the artist vs. his audience, Leth vs. Von Trier. Von Trier hopes to make Leth expose the personal anguish that he is sure Leth formalizes in the dress of perfection called "Art." He seeks to obstruct Leth's escape from the imperfection of his life into the perfection of his creations, the illusory "Perfect Human." To Von Trier, the gloomy Dane, creation is somehow the civilized disguise of personal failure and suffering, a distancing from the existential chaos of self.
In the last "obstruction," illustrated by clips from the rest of the film, Von Trier has Leth read a letter that Von Trier has written to himself, in which he admits that it is he, not Leth, who has all along been lying through Art and seeking confessional release; that it is he, not Leth, who has been hiding in the celluloid shell of the Perfect Man. Talk about introversion, Chinese boxes.
As a foil to all this involuted artifice, there is a short documentary segment in which Leth, sitting behind the shut glass of his car in traffic in Bombay, is approached by a woman carrying a baby, begging for alms. The restrained anguish on her gaunt face, the unknowing innocence of the child, and the decrepitude of old Leth fumbling impotently for change casually intrude into and shatter this film with more messy "truth" than Von Trier and Leth seem ready to admit into their sterile and fastidious workshop.
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