The Five Obstructions

"Enfant terrible" is a convenient label with which to pigeonhole Lars Von Trier, and not because of the kind of films the Danish auteur makes: Tabloid tales of behind-the-scenes tears and tantrums of the "I'll never work with that maniac again!" variety seem to accompany each of his provocative productions. But even those who dismiss Von Trier as a talented...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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"Enfant terrible" is a convenient label with which to pigeonhole Lars Von Trier, and not because of the kind of films the Danish auteur makes: Tabloid tales of behind-the-scenes tears and tantrums of the "I'll never work with that maniac again!" variety seem to accompany each of his provocative productions. But even those who dismiss Von Trier as a talented sadist might reconsider after seeing this revealing and ultimately poignant documentary — and the funny thing is, on the surface it's not even about him. The film's ostensible subject is Danish avant-garde filmmaker Jorgen Leth, who directed the black-and-white modernist short "The Perfect Human" (1967), in which a trim young man (Claus Nissen) dances and dines in black tie while a narrator asks a number of questions about this "perfect human." Von Trier claims to have seen this 12-minute film nearly 20 times, and regards Leth, who's since left frosty Denmark for warmer Haitian climes, his mentor. Out of what initially appears nothing more than sheer perversity, Von Trier challenges his teacher to remake "The Perfect Human" not once but five times. And there's a further catch: For each film, Leth must work his way around "obstructions" of Von Trier's devilishly capricious choosing, obstacles designed to test the older filmmaker's artistic ingenuity. In the first film, Von Trier stipulates that no shot can be longer than 12 frames (half a second); in another, Leth must shoot in the most miserable place on Earth he can imagine (Leth chooses the ghastly red-light district of Bombay). A third must be shot entirely as a cartoon. Throughout, snippets of the original short are juxtaposed with Leth's re-imaginings, then intercut with the directors' increasingly tense meetings in Copenhagen, where Von Trier critiques the finished product before gleefully hurling a new set of impediments in Leth's path. Why, you ask? For Von Trier, the often grueling filmmaking process has long been as important as the finished product; witness the Dogme 95 manifesto and its host of production prohibitions, which Von Trier and his cohorts hoped would serve as a defibrillator to the chest of contemporary cinema. Here the obstructions seem far more arbitrary — at one point Von Trier demands Leth shoot in Cuba simply because he's never been there before — but he's got something up his sleeve. It's a hand he doesn't show until the film's final, surprisingly touching moments, when it becomes clear just how far each filmmaker will go for the love of cinema and the other. (In Danish, English, French and Spanish, with English subtitles.)

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  • Released: 2003
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: "Enfant terrible" is a convenient label with which to pigeonhole Lars Von Trier, and not because of the kind of films the Danish auteur makes: Tabloid tales of behind-the-scenes tears and tantrums of the "I'll never work with that maniac again!" variety se… (more)

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