Review: The Five Obstructions (2003)

Poster for The Five Obstructions (2003).
“Today, I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between…” – Francois Truffaut

There are two types of films that fascinate me: a film that takes place in a span of 24 hours or less and a film about film-making. My favorite of the first kind is My Dinner with Andre, and for the second, it’s this one. The Five Obstructions pits two visionary auteurs against each other in a battle of wit. What makes the film so hilarious is that they never realize that they’re just constantly battling themselves.

The two filmmakers are Lars von Trier and Jorgen Leth, both of Danish origins. Trier, one of Leth’s most notable protégés, challenges his mentor to recreate one of his most well-known films, “The Perfect Human,” five times. If you thought that was harsh, it gets better (or in Leth’s case, worse). Each task is provided with an obstruction from Trier, each of them more ridiculous than the last: in the first remake, Leth is only allowed to shoot in 12 frames, with no set, in Cuba; in the second remake, he is forced to go to “the most miserable place on Earth;” in the fourth remake, he is forced to remake the whole thing as a cartoon. Leth begrudgingly follows the tough demands, venting his frustrations whenever there’s a camera pointed at him. However, his end results are nothing short of brilliant and beautiful (yes, even the cartoon!).

The clash between Jorgen Leth’s style of filmmaking and Lars von Trier’s style of directing is, in essence, what Truffaut called “the joy of making cinema.” I love the irony that even though Leth’s the teacher, he is repeatedly pushed around by who is supposed to be his student. The chemistry (or lack thereof) between the two shows that even though they define the term “cinema” differently, they both strive to create thoughtful, provocative works of art; it’s that sense of purpose that fuels the joy of cinema. The agony, however, comes from the actual process: the minute details of casting, costumes, locations and settings, etc. Leth is forced to go through these acts of mundanity in order to create the extraordinary. Leth always looks disinterested and bogged down, but in the end, he has assembled cinematic wonders, surprising the arrogant challenger himself.

Ultimately, The Five Obstructions manages to expand on the themes of Leth’s short, “The Perfect Human.” The title itself is a contradiction: there’s no such thing as a “perfect human”. We are an inherently flawed species, but we are easily led to believe that we are “perfect”. Such are the case of both Trier and Leth, two men blinded by their respective egos and ideas of self-righteousness. The most powerful image comes from the second remake – “The Perfect Human – Bombay” in which Leth, playing the part of the “perfect human,” separates himself and the population of Bombay using a translucent screen. Trier considered this a failure, a violation of his rules, but I think he saw himself in that image: a man in a tux, eating a fancy dinner, detached from the outside world by his ego and position in society. In the original short, one of the questions posed by the narrator was: “How does the perfect human fall?” For Leth and Trier, it is the ego that determined his fall. It is their egos that stopped them from achieving perfection, it’s their senses of self-righteousness that determines their failures. The movie shows them battling each other, but we see each of them battling their imperfections. That’s what makes the fifth and final obstruction such a powerful coda: it is when they finally, at least for a moment, let go of their enormous self-pride and look to the truth. It is through that moment that they’ve stepped a bit closer to perfection.

The Five Obstructions is going to grab your interest if you take film seriously, and will fascinate you if you have already been making movies. To this reviewer, this film defines what it truly means to be a filmmaker: you make timeless wonders despite the endless mundanity of life and the growing presence of your pretension.