The Five Obstructions Review
“The Perfect Human”. You can imagine why Jørgen Leth’s short film would be so appealing to Lars von Trier even from the title alone. A perfect little film with a title like that would surely represent a challenge to Lars von Trier, who has, since the glossy stylings of his early films, Europa and The Element of Crime, sought to systematically strip his work of anything resembling professionalism, perfectionism, and in the process show human beings – and indeed the director himself - to be very flawed creatures indeed. “The Perfect Human”? Surely such a thing cannot exist.
Well, that indeed seems to be the point made in Jørgen Leth’s 1967 film starring Claus Nissen and Majken Algren Nielsen, the title of course being loaded with not a little irony. The perfect man and the perfect woman are perfect as long as they remain utterly detached from reality, living in a completely blank space with no-one and nothing else around, able to revel in their own wonderfulness. Try putting the perfect man and the perfect woman together however and you can be sure that things will not be quite so perfect.
The film has however long fascinated Lars von Trier, to the extent that he felt that it was time for it to be updated, deconstructed, reworked, reconsidered – and who better to do that than the original director Jørgen Leth himself. As an experiment, he proposes to the director that, in the manner in which he makes his own films, The Perfect Human should be remade with certain artistic restrictions and remade five times - each under a different set of “obstructions”. The first, for example is to be made with no single edit longer than 12 frames, must be made in Cuba, without a set, and must actually answer the questions posed in the original film. In another obstruction, the film The Perfect Human is to be remade as a cartoon.
The restrictions placed before the filmmaker seem to be fairly random, but there is a method to Lars von Trier’s madness and certainly a purpose. The obstructions are often random, but do usually come about from weaknesses that Trier identifies in Jørgen Leth himself during their little conversations when they meet up again at regular intervals to review how well he has met the latest challenge and plan the next. The fact that Leth likes Havana cigars leads one obstruction to be filmed in Cuba, and despite his hatred for cartoons (Trier professes a loathing for them as well), he is forced to make his film into one. The purpose is not necessarily to make a better film, not to make a more “perfect” film, not even to make a good film – for Trier, the uglier the film is the better. Leth however, is reluctant to let go of that control which restricts and inhibits what he can achieve. He is too much of an artist and a perfectionist to relinquish complete control of his work, particularly on his work’s aesthetic sensibility, but he is also too much of an artist and a perfectionist not to rise to the challenge Lars von Trier presents through his obstructions.
The actual purpose of all this brow-beating is self-evident – to take the director out of his comfort zone, present him with challenges and thereby learn something new about making films. The dialectic and the imposition of hindrances is designed to break down technique and pose, discover one’s limitations and surpass them, refusing to take the easy option. By deconstructing his film, Leth deconstructs himself and in the process learns something about himself, about how he makes films and why he makes them – “to get to where the scream was and let it out”. The Five Obstructions then is fascinating viewing to see the director go through this relearning and self-realisation process, taking the hard serves that von Trier sends his way and sending them flying back. It’s unfortunate then that the fifth obstruction feels the need to patronisingly spell it all out for Leth and for the viewer, telling us rather than allowing The Perfect Human Reduxes to speak for themselves.
The Five Obstructions is released in the UK by ICA Projects. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, is in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
Evidently, being an ICA Projects release, expectations shouldn’t be held too high, and if not, then the transfer on The Five Obstructions might actually be pleasantly surprising. It’s not anamorphic – that’s perhaps a bit too much to ask – but other than that there is really nothing to fault. The image is clear, sharp and vibrantly colourful – just look at those scenes filmed in Calcutta or the cartoon elements of the film. Digital artefacts are not an issue here either. The aspect ratio is 1.78:1, but the image cannot be zoomed to widescreen on account of the fixed subtitles lying outside the frame in the black border.
Audio quality is also fine. Dolby Digital 2.0 would appear to be expected for what is essentially a documentary for the main part, the filmed versions of The Perfect Human additionally being filmed within a certain budget and under a certain disregard for aesthetics that I assume would preclude luxuries such as surround sound. That said, dialogue is clear throughout.
English subtitles are evidently fixed on the transfer in a white font in the border below the non-anamorphic image. They remain clear and readable throughout, providing you don’t attempt to zoom-in on the image.
Extras are something you also rarely see on an ICA Projects release, but in addition to the fascinating Trailer (2:53), there is the welcome inclusion of Jørgen Leth’s original 1967 version of The Perfect Human (12:43). The quality here isn’t quite as good as the excerpts seen during the feature, but it’s not bad either, remaining clear and retaining the original stark black-and-white aesthetic.
The Five Obstructions is an experiment, or more accurately, a documentary about an experiment, and any experiment worthy of the name should present challenges that may or may not be resolved, but should at least teach us something we didn’t know before. That is certainly Lars von Trier’s aim when he makes his own films and the same principle would seem to be applied here as he forces Jørgen Leth to remake his own film under some ludicrous conditions and rules. More importantly however, an experiment shouldn’t have a fixed outcome in mind and, ever the arch-manipulator, I suspect that Trier knew very well just how Leth would behave in the face of this provocation and just what lessons would be learnt. That perhaps takes a little of the edge away from the film, but there is still much to enjoy in the challenges and confrontations between these two fascinating filmmakers. ICA Projects’ transfer of the film is typically fairly basic, but it does provide a transfer that does justice to the film, and includes what would probably be considered an essential extra feature, when a barebones release from them wouldn’t have been unexpected.