Heart and Soul Review
Certainly better known in his native Denmark as a filmmaker, poet, journalist and even as the once official Danish Consul in Haiti, the subject of Tómas Gislason’s 1994 documentary film Heart and Soul (Fra Hjertet til Hånden), Jørgen Leth, will perhaps be known to the wider world for his 2003 collaboration with Lars von Trier, The Five Obstructions. Ostensibly another Trier filmmaking experiment, forcing Leth to remake his short film The Perfect Human five times under a bizarre range of restrictions or obstructions that would force the director to re-think his approach to filmmaking, The Five Obstructions was however clearly more about getting Leth, prone to bouts of depression and struggles with personal demons, to get more in touch with himself. Tómas Gislason’s documentary may perhaps not be quite as inventive and entertaining as Trier’s approach, but essentially it serves a similar purpose, getting the director to open up his life and expose himself, heart and soul, to a public who would have little understanding of the man behind the films.
Like a number of writers and artists before him, Leth would place himself in exile in Haiti, seeking to escape the restrictions of the European lifestyle and find a different way of living in a culture that has a closer relationship to those essential human mysteries that so fascinate the artist – life, love and death. Visiting Leth there in 1993 – 94, Gislason discovers the filmmaker fascinated by the Haitian people and their way of living, with voodoo ceremonies and séances, but unwilling to participate in the experience, preferring to remain distant and merely observe, so as to retain the necessary control to relate them from the viewpoint of a writer and storyteller. Lars von Trier would also note this trait and try to get Leth to confront it in The Five Obstructions. Having struggled with depression in his life, Leth knows the importance of being able to relinquish this need to remain detached and in control, and admits here at the conclusion of Gislason’s film that the key to happiness is in being able to forget about yourself. Only once in the film do we see Leth approach this state, in his love for a young Haitian girl, but even that is tainted by the thought of how the relationship between an older white man and a young native girl is perceived by outsiders.
Such personal and intimate observations are however rare in Heart and Soul. We catch a glimpse of the passions that drive the man through Leth’s interest in cycling, his near-obsession with the nature of the sport leading him to become very involved, acting as a commentator and correspondent on the Tour de France for Danish television. Although not particularly a fan of football, the passions it can potentially arouse becomes evident to him as well while making a documentary film about Danish star Michael Laudrup’s stint in the legendary Barcelona team of this period. Like the scenes however showing Leth struggling for weeks to make a simple decision like choosing a new jacket while in Barcelona, the observations and insights this provides into the nature of the filmmaker are slight and overindulged. The areas of Jørgen Leth’s personality that could be revealed through his work and his notebooks are however reduced to mere soundbites, illustrating those characteristics rather than examining them or trying to get beneath what drives them. As a result Heart and Soul often seems unfocussed as it jumps around from place to place, though perhaps this is indeed a reflection of the subject himself.
Filmed on low-definition video – analogue it would seem - Heart and Soul moreover often betrays its roots as a television commission rather than as a documentary feature. Not through any narrative device – the filmmaker remains off-screen during the film - but through the editing choices Gislason employs. There is too much playing around with the material in the editing suite, superimposing talking heads over new backgrounds, layering of images - still and moving – into floating and shattering Polaroid-style windows. These simple effects are unnecessary and can become rather irritating, serving to date the film slightly, but worse, they can over-emphasise – as when lines of dialogue are looped and repeated – and give the appearance of over-manipulation of the material. Perhaps not as rigorous and revealing as it could have been, Heart and Soul nevertheless does indeed manage to convey the impression of Jørgen Leth as a passionate artist, whose troubled and contradictory personality is constantly struggling with itself and seeking to continually find new ways of expressing itself.
Heart and Soul (Fra Hjertet til Hånden) is released in Denmark by Electric Parc. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is in PAL format, but is not region encoded. The disc can be purchased from Laserdisken or The Danish Film Institute.
The picture quality of the DVD is inevitably limited by the nature of the original video stock, so the image is somewhat soft and grainy, the colours are not naturalistic and the tones and black levels are slightly brighter than they perhaps ought to be. This is however a documentary, often using natural light, so this is only to be expected. There are however few problems with the original stock. A few horizontal analogue tape tracking error lines show up in one or two places, but blink and you will miss them. The transfer itself, coming from Electric Parc (Dogville, Manderlay, Lars von Trier’s Europe Trilogy, Dogme Kollection #1-4), is of course impeccable. Presented on a dual-layer disc, the image remains stable, clear and free from any kind of digital artefact. Presented in a ratio of 1.78:1, and slightly letterboxed at the bottom and sides, this is about as good as the film could possibly look and it looks very good indeed.
The original audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is strong and clear throughout. Although a documentary, most of the conversations and interviews do take place in controlled conditions, so the quality is always good, but even in those circumstances which are filmed on-the-move so to speak, are also quite clear. Dialogue is mainly in Danish, but some conversations are also in English.
Partial English subtitles are provided for Danish dialogue in a clear white font. They are of course optional. For the English dialogue there is only optional partial Danish subtitles.
Another thing Electric Parc know how to do well is provide added value to their releases through the extra features. Unfortunately, there’s a limited amount they can do with a 12 year old documentary, so most of the features here take the form of a modern perspective on the film by both Leth and Gislason. A Conversation with Tómas and Jørgen (7:40) looks back on that period and considers the demons shown there that Leth still tries to keep at bay. Lars von Trier is called into the discussion in Trier in the Garden (13:07), trying to get behind how The Five Obstructions came about. It turns into a consideration of how much Leth broke the rules, and a series of funny anecdotes about cinematographer Robbie Müller.
The remaining features gather together friends, family and filmmakers to consider The Smear Campaign Against Jørgen (10:03), when the press turned against the filmmaker after some of the publication of his memoirs two years ago, detailing some of the revelations already made in this documentary; Leth, Haiti and Godard (16:34) is a discussion about filmmaking in general and consideration of the relative merits of Truffaut, Fellini and Godard; and in The Crew Behind The Film they discuss the difficulties involved in getting the film made, how they dealt with the challenges it presented, how little money they made from it, but also the positive impact it had on Jørgen Leth’s life. The discussions in these latter features are however rather too informal and unstructured to reveal a great deal, and often speaking about media people who will only be familiar to Danish viewers, but there are some interesting anecdotes.
Even without a great knowledge of the man’s work, the complex and fascinating personality that is Jørgen Leth does come through in Tómas Gislason’s Heart and Soul, much as it did with The Five Obstructions. Just how deep the filmmaker can delve into that personality is however limited by Leth himself and how much he is willing to reveal, and Gislason has his work cut out for him. His documentary is perhaps not as inventive as The Five Obstructions, which introduced us to the man by deconstructing one of his films, but Heart and Soul does to some extent find a more human level to operate on than Trier’s perhaps too-clever-for-its-own-good approach. Electric Parc’s Danish DVD release is as usual impeccable.