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With: J┐rgen Leth, Lars von Trier, Patrick Bauchau
Written by: J┐rgen Leth, Lars von Trier
Directed by: J┐rgen Leth, Lars von Trier
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Danish, English, French and Spanish with English subtitles
Running Time: 88
Date: 09/11/2003

The Five Obstructions (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Teacher Features

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is as well known for his bizarre experiments as he is for his talent.

A few examples: he co-founded the "Dogme 95" manifesto that restricted filmmakers to a set of ten rules to bound their art; he claimed that he channeled the late Carl Theodor Dreyer while filming Medea from Dreyer's script; he claimed to have used "1000" digital cameras in the making of Dancer in the Dark; he makes films critical of America without ever having been here; and his latest film, Dogville, runs three hours and never leaves the confines of a bare stage marked with white chalk lines.

But his latest film, The Five Obstructions, may be the one that gets the closest to his inner workings, and the one that finally tests him back.

Teaming up with filmmaker Jørgen Leth, von Trier's former teacher, the two make a pact. Leth will remake his 1967 short film, The Perfect Human, five times according to von Trier's instructions.

The first challenge sends Leth to Cuba to make the film using no more than 12 frames in a single cut. Then Leth is supposed to make the film in the "most miserable place on earth," which turns out to be the red light district of Bombay, and must play the title character himself. In another segment, Leth must make an animated version of the film, a form that both he and von Trier claim to hate. He also casts French actor Patrick Bauchau (La Collectionneuse, Choose Me) in one segment.

With directing credit going to both filmmakers, The Five Obstructions shows, for the most part, Leth's finished films, and it also shows the original The Perfect Human in bits and pieces throughout. But the meat and potatoes comes in the documentary sequences tying everything together. Here we see von Trier playing his little game and Leth trying to beat him, even while the rules are constantly changing.

The point, apparently, is for von Trier to get Leth to let down his defenses, and even to turn in a bad film. As with the "Dogme 95" manifesto, it's another way to get at the "truth." The fascinating thing about Leth's finished films is the ambiguousness of their success or failure. Von Trier claims to be disappointed by some of the results, while admiring others, all for different reasons.

In other words, the teacher holds firm while the student looks for ways out. It's almost like watching him squirm. And the truth backfires on him, showing us the real von Trier for perhaps the very first time.

Note: while The Five Obstructions works perfectly well on the big screen, it occurred to me that it would work even better as an interactive DVD, which would give the viewer the option of watching all six of Leth's films separately from the documentary. It would also give viewers a chance to see the original The Perfect Human uncut and in its proper order.

Koch Lorber's 2004 DVD release, which arrived in late September, does indeed contain the entire, unaltered 13-minute The Perfect Human but does not contain the Leth's five new remakes, which I would liked to have seen in their entirety. (The Perfect Human is a remarkable little film, though, and it certainly heightens one's appreciation of the feature.) The DVD also comes with a commentary track (in English) by Leth, two trailers (one for the US and one Danish), plus trailers for other recent Koch Lorber releases (La Dolce Vita, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jesus of Montreal, The Decline of the American Empire, In July, Pigalle, Sister My Sister).

As of 2014, that edition has gone out of print, so Kino Lorber, which owns the rights to the film, has re-released what looks like the same DVD, in somewhat new packaging. (Although it does claim to be remastered.) There's no Blu-ray as of yet.

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