The Five Obstructions
Dir.: Lars Von Trier
NR, 90 min.
Opening Friday at the Belcourt
Lars von Trier is the mischievious Puck of the world cinema scene, equal parts artist and provocateurand you never know which one you're going to get when the lights go down. His latest documentary project, The Five Obstructions, provides the best evidence yet that those two Janus faces cannot be separated from each other. It's because he is a provocateur that von Trier is an artist. And only when he's making art is he truly able to provoke.
The Five Obstructions casts von Trier himself as the puppetmaster in a cruel game disguised as an homage to one of his teachers, Jorgen Leth. Leth's 1967 short "The Perfect Human," often hailed as a breakthrough for contemporary Danish cinema, portrayed the director's frequent stand-in Claus Nissen performing ordinary actions (and a few idiosyncratic ones) on a starkly furnished white set, with Leth providing a voice-over at once anthropological and cryptically existential. Von Trier sets Leth the task of remaking the film five times over, with each re-creation adhering to rulesobstructionslaid down by von Trier himself, wearing a smirk worthy of Mephistopheles.
And so Leth, who has largely traded in his director's chair in favor of living quietly in Haiti and providing commentary on the Tour de France for Danish television, sets off for Cuba, India, the United States, wherever von Trier orders him to go. He films actors and himself; he supervises animation; he protests that von Trier's dictates cannot produce good art; and he learns to keep his mouth shut when von Trier asks his opinion, because whatever Leth prefers, von Trier will decree the opposite.
The Five Obstructions moves from von Trier's hellish lair, in which the tortures are concocted, to Leth's on-location problem-solving, to snippets of the 1967 original, to more extended segments of Leth's 21st century remakes. We begin to root for Leth, as von Trier admits that he wants to break down his "perfection," to put him in the position of "a tortoise on its back." But we also hope for the Cinematic Inquisitor to top each impossible demand with something even more fiendish. In the end, the game implodes, and von Trier calls the entire exerciseincluding the adversarial yet collaborative relationship between the two filmmakersinto question.
Artistic movements have long produced lists of restrictions or prescriptions to which style and content must conform. The Dogme 95 movement, of which von Trier was once a leading light, is merely the latest effort to revive cinema by removing artifice, or emphasizing it, or establishing some other politico-doctrinal method. As reformations in the real world, these movements can seem off-puttingly earnest: in the case of Dogme 95, it appears that the signatories actually believe that the way to save film is to remove all artifical lighting.
The Five Obstructions, in showing von Trier's whimsical, arbitrary and devilishly astute choice of restrictions, reveals the true nature of all such credos. There are always limits to art, whether or not we see and feel them. To revive art, it is merely necessary to make those limitations visible and tangible; to restore creativity, it is necessary to experience the struggle against something (or someone) outside the artist's self. Freedom is the greatest obstruction of all.
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