My first screening of the Seattle International Film Festival was Lars von Trier and Jorgen Leth’s collaborative/confrontational experiment, The Five Obstructions. Von Trier evidently worships Leth’s 1967 short, The Perfect Human, and in a perverse move (the word “perversion” is thrown around a lot between the two directors, all of it relating to von Trier’s purposely impossible demands of Leth), von Trier has challenged Leth to remake the film a number of times, with each version tailored to his impossible set of demands (the “obstructions” of the title). Von Trier’s goal: To drag his idol down, to see if there’s anything he can’t do. Leth’s goal: To overcome those obstructions and make each successive copy interesting, whole, and worthwhile.
The film consists of bits of the original interspersed with documentary footage of the two directors in conversation and, of course, the newly done shorts. Von Trier’s obstructions range from the mean (one version is allowed no edit longer than 12 frames) to the socially conscious (he sends Leth to the world’s most miserable location, and makes Leth choose it himself- it turns out to be a Calcutta red-light district- and just see if he can shoot his little movie without acknowledging the teeming, impoverished surroundings) to the seemingly impossible (one version must be animated, which leads the two to argue about which of them loathes cartoons more). The final obstruction is something of a surprise, but suffice to say that the whole affair turns out to be a sort of warped love letter (could there be any other kind, considering the source?) from von Trier to Leth.
The film brought to my mind My Best Fiend, a documentary about the extremely tumultuous relationship between two Europeans even more crazy and obstinate than von Trier: German director Werner Herzog and his famously nutty recurrent collaborator, actor Klaus Kinski. We’re heavily exposed to the funny but slightly horrifying personalities of von Trier and Leth, who are both extremely intelligent, extremely creative, very opinionated, and slightly psychotic. Von Trier is something of a film-culture celebrity and (in)famous for being difficult, so it’s fascinating to see him joke with Leth, palling around and sharing witty banter and jokes while simultaneously subjecting him to a frustrating series of trials that cut straight to the heart of their creative vocation.
My only complaint: We never actually get to see the original version from 1967 in its entirety, which would seem to be a prerequisite for something like this.
On my SIFF ballot, I gave it a 4 out of a possible 5.
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