the-five-obstructionsBefore you read any further, if you’re not into unconventional avante-garde filmmaking, this film is NOT for you and I suggest you wait for my next review. With that said, The Five Obstructions is not a film anyone can say they enjoy because its not meant to be enjoyed or entertained by. It is an exercise designed to test the limits of artistic integrity. Danish director Lars von Trier (director of the recently released Antichrist) takes his favorite film, The Perfect Human (1967), and poses a challenge to its director, Jorgen Leth, to remake the film five times. To succeed, Leth must direct each version of his film according to rules or conditions set forth by von Trier.

For the first challenge, The First Obstruction, Leth is instructed to remake his film in Cuba (but with no set) with no shot longer than 12 frames. He must also answer the questions that are posed in the original film. The second and more difficult Obstruction requires Leth to remake the film in the worst place in the world, but he cannot show that place onscreen. Furthermore, Leth must play the role of the man in his film in a scene that requires him to eat a meal. Leth fails to follow the rules for the second Obstruction so von Trier punishes him by telling him to either remake the film in any way he chooses or redo the film according to the rules for the second Obstruction. Leth chooses the first option. The fourth Obstruction challenges Leth to remake his film as animation. The last Obstruction has von Trier remaking the film, but the credit is to go to Leth and Leth must read a voice-over narration from his own perspective that is in fact written by von Trier. Whew!! Got that?

Lars von Trier is a director who continually defies cinematic convention. Thematically and visually, he is one of the most ambitious filmmakers to emerge in the past 30 years. In 1995, von Trier co-founded a film movement that eschewed expensive and spectacular special effects, postproduction modifications, and other gimmicks. Called Dogme 95, the movement emphasized purity and forced filmmakers to focus on the actual story and the actors’ performances. The Danish filmmakers, including von Trier, who formed this collective have not completely adhered to the rules they outlined for the movement. However, Dogme 95 has inspired a new generation of filmmakers and has attracted the attention of the world to Danish cinema.

Dogme 95 focused on fictional narratives told in an ultra-realistic, documentary-like style whereas The Five Obstructions is an actual documentary. However, this film embodies many of the values that define Dogme 95. Being a documentary, The Five Obstructions obviously has no sets and no special effects. The original film that is being remade in the documentary also has no sets, no special effects, and the focus is purely on the characters. Central to von Trier’s films is the theme of honesty and this film explores that in various facets. In devising the various Obstructions, von Trier challenges Leth to look within his artistic self and pushes him to the boundaries of his artistic integrity. Von Trier has gained a reputation for exploring unpleasant themes and narratives (for a recent example of this, see his latest film, Antichrist). This documentary is no exception and von Trier appears to relish creating situations for Leth that will make him uncomfortable. In fact, von Trier seems disappointed to see Leth successfully overcome von Trier’s Obstructions.

I’m not sure if this says something about how disturbed I may be, but other than the second Obstruction, I did not feel the other Obstructions were challenging enough. I almost feel that von Trier held back on purpose in trying to concoct difficult conditions for Leth to follow. I believe the conversations between the two filmmakers made von Trier realize that he could not push Leth to the extent he anticipated in the beginning. This brings me to the second Obstruction, which I think was the most difficult to accomplish and it really forced Leth to question how far he is willing to go for the sake of art. The condition for the second Obstruction was that it had to be shot in a horrible place somewhere in the world. Furthermore, Leth had to play the role of the perfect man in his film and one of the scenes required Leth to eat a meal. Bombay was the chosen location, specifically the red light district, which is an extremely impoverished area. Leth, dressed in his character’s tuxedo, shoots the meal scene right in the middle of the slums surrounded by starving and poor Indians. He sits down at a table with fancy linen and silverware and proceeds to eat a nicely prepared fish. Behind him you can see the Indians watching him eat the fish. As surprised as I was that Leth went ahead and shot this scene, I disagreed with his decision to do so and with von Trier’s decision to have such a condition. I am unwilling to push my artistic integrity for the sake of art at either the expense of others or in a situation such as this that is downright cruel.

As I stated before, this is not a film for everyone or even for most people. Its an academic discussion that I think gives an interesting insight into the minds of avante-garde filmmakers (by the way, in listening to these filmmakers I got to thinking of what these directors would say about someone like Michael Bay or whether Michael Bay would even be capable of contributing to their discussion). Is The Five Obstructions a film for the black turtleneck crowd? Yes. However, its a challenging work of art that regardless of whether you appreciate it or not, we should be glad that such films can still be made.