In 2003, the low-budget Danish film The Five Obstructions was an unlikely success in art house cinemas, around
film festivals, and subsequently on DVD; it has
become so popular in film study courses that an entire book (in English), compiled by Mette
Hjort, was devoted to it in 2008. The movie itself is simple yet
novel – and paradoxically involving for what is,
essentially, an exercise in conceptual art.
Lars von Trier approaches his friend and filmmaking mentor, Jørgen Leth,
with a crazy idea: the older man must remake his own classic, experimental
short The Perfect Human (Det
perfekte menneske, 1967) – von Trier’s favourite film, we are informed – five times over, but each time with an obstruction, condition or constraint
that at once sets a challenge and creates difficulties: it has to be an
animation, it must be shot in Cuba, each shot can be
no longer than twelve frames, Leth must play the central role … and so on.
Leth performs ably, failing only once (and is thus compelled to re-do that version). The final variation is a surprise move on von Trier’s part: he unveils his remake of The Perfect Human, for which Leth must read a pre-scripted voice-over, and credit the finished work to himself. Connoisseurs of literary avant-gardes
will detect in this project a strong echo of the Oulipo school of often zany
Like The Perfect Human itself, The Five Obstructions is a film beyond genre: is it fiction, documentary, essay, experimental? Its charm is
undeniable; gradually, under the surface and between the five remakes, in the cracks of the conversation and in the artistic decisions that
each participant makes, we glimpse the details of the friendship between these
two men. A cerebral game gives way to a perfectly
human dimension we did not expect from it at the start.
Was that von Trier’s aim all along: to set up a rule-bound structure (a method of which he
is very fond) that, ultimately, lets in a different kind of light, ending up in
We may never know the answer to that one but,
incontrovertibly, The Five Obstructions is an
emblem of the rise of a new kind of film – one that is based, at least in the
first instance, on the logic of a dispositif or a game with rules, where the execution of the game’s moves (following
the rules) generates outcomes, results and sometimes surprises.
NOTE: This text is adapted from the beginning of
Chapter 9 of my book Mise en scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood
to New Media Art (Palgrave, 2014).
MORE von Trier: The Boss of It All, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, The House That Jack Built, Zentropa, The Kingdom
© Adrian Martin