The Five Obstructions is one of those movies you want to either take cold or arm yourself by reading everything you can get your hands on beforehand. I did something in between, and maybe that's why I feel both like I basically understand the movie and like I'll never completely understand it. To refer to it as a documentary, as some critics have done, seems a mistake. I'd call it a work of art about a work of art about a work of art. The original work was 1967's The Perfect Human, a short film by revered Danish director JÃrgen Leth, which I still haven't seen in its entirety. The Five Obstructions includes ample excerpts, however, and it appears to be a dryly witty mock-documentary that treats its two subjects, a man and a woman, like representatives of a newly discovered species. "We are going to watch the perfect human at work," an offscreen narrator says while the perfect man leans over to tie his shoes.
Arty yet accessible, The Perfect Human happens to be one of Lars von Trier's favorite movies. Von Trier is, of course, the mastermind behind such international arthouse films as Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, movies that have made no compromises in order to attract an audience, movies that put their lead actresses -- Emily Watson, BjÃrk, Nicole Kidman -- as well as the characters they played through hell. Von Trier was also a principal architect of the Dogma "Vow of Chastity," a document that called for the elimination of such Hollywood-ish "tricks" as artificial lighting, musical scores and sets, all in the name of naturalism. In short, "difficulty" is von Trier's middle name -- at least it would be if he hadn't adopted that pretentious "von" instead. And that's where The Five Obstructions comes in. Enamored of the movie since he was a student at the Danish Film Institute while Leth was teaching there, von Trier set out to destroy the thing he loves.
That's what he says, anyway. What he really sets out to do, it becomes clear as The Five Obstructions unfolds, is rouse Leth from his slumbers, nudge him out of his comfort zone, spur him to higher achievements and, almost in passing, cure him of his chronic depression. And here's how he proposes to do it. Leth will make five new versions of The Perfect Human, each version subject to various restrictions supplied by von Trier. The first set of restrictions, referred to as Obstruction #1, includes shooting in Cuba and having no individual shot last longer than half a second. "It's completely insane!" Leth screams, then rolls up his sleeves and goes to work. And what he brings back is a delightful film that, in its staccato rhythms and Caribbean flavor, both retraces and extends the original. If this were a game, as it quite clearly is, Leth would be declared the winner of Round One. But von Trier's the guy making the rules. Obstruction #2 sends Leth to the worst part of Bombay, where he films himself enjoying a gourmet meal while half-starved Indians look on.
Another successful film results, although this time Leth breaks one of the rules: He wasn't supposed to include other people. Your punishment should fit the crime, von Trier declares, and Obstruction #3 requires Leth to either return to Bombay and get it right this time or make an entirely new film without any restrictions -- a true Hobson's choice, given that Leth can't fathom returning to Bombay and also can't fathom working without any restrictions. We've now arrived at the heart of The Five Obstructions, which turns out to be, among many other things, a philosophical investigation of the role that limitations play in the artistic process. Rules are made to be broken, but they're also made so that there's something out there to get the creative juices flowing. Without artistic problems, there are no artistic solutions. Without rules, there are no games. And art, when you think about it, is a game in which the rules are constantly changing. "It's a game with a lot at stake, of course," Leth recently told The New York Times. "My reputation, for instance."
Given the work he does for von Trier, I'd say Leth's reputation is secure. But The Five Obstructions isn't about Leth's artistic reputation, ultimately. It's about Leth's artistic soul. "My plan is to proceed from the perfect to the human," von Trier announces early on in the movie, and the obstacles he puts in Leth's path are designed to bring him down a notch, reveal the person behind the artist. But maybe there isn't a person behind the artist. Maybe there's only the artist. And here's where I started to get a little confused. Obstruction #5, which I won't reveal here, represents either a victory or a defeat on von Trier's part. He'd hoped that a breakdown would lead to a breakthrough in Leth's life, but Leth hadn't broken down. Or had he? There are so many contradictory ideas in The Five Obstructions -- creative destruction, the no-rules rule, the problems with perfection -- that it's sometimes difficult to sort through them all. Then again, why should we sort through them all? Maybe it's better not to.
The Five Obstructions screens for free on Friday, July 9, at 7:30 p.m. in 4070 UW Vilas Hall.