Director Lars von Trier challenges his mentor, filmmaker Jorgen Leth, to remake his short film THE PERFECT HUMAN according to rules of the apprentice's choosing in THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS. For example, among the first obstructions are that Leth must shoot the film in Cuba and cannot let any shot last more than twelve frames. Von Trier, who has built a reputation as cinema's enfant terrible with BREAKING THE WAVES and DANCER IN THE DARK, provokes Leth as he does the heroines in his melodramas. Like a tough teacher, he pushes his student to stretch himself farther than he ordinarily would. Von Trier compares this experiment in their relationship to the therapist-client dyad. Leth finds that the more he lets von Trier know what he thinks about the obstructions, the less he wants to share. Von Trier, though, explains that Leth cannot work through the issues if he will not give something of himself.
THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS is a brilliant film that demonstrates how individuals cannot help but reveal information about themselves but still questions if one can truly know another person. What Leth chooses not to do or say often reveals as much about him as his actions and words, and the same is true of von Trier. Yet through all of this, is von Trier any closer to being able to perceive how Leth does? In watching films, can we view through the eyes of the director?
THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS also has much to say about artistic expression and its refinement through the process, be it collaboration, editing, or external interference. It is likely that the five obstructed films, seen in part here, and this feature are all greater than they would have been without the imposed limitations. The obstructions force Leth to flex creative muscles that have been long dormant or which he may not have known he possessed. (The fourth obstruction seems so extreme and unlikely--von Trier expects and hopes the film will be bad--but produces what may be the most stunning of the films.) He may not enjoy the pains von Trier forces him to feel, but in the end he can elate in coming through and achieving something beyond his expectations.
Although THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS is about filmmaking, it is ostensibly a commentary on life. All manner of things obstruct us from doing what we desire, but we must go on and work around and through these things. The third obstruction features one of the film's most telling exchanges. Von Trier gives Leth the ultimate existential choice, total freedom to make the film he wants versus a strict set of rules to do something he finds uncomfortable at best. It comes as no surprise that having no limitations is a scarier prospect.
The five obstructed films are vastly different from Leth's original version of THE PERFECT HUMAN and each other but are, in their own ways, genius. (SPOILER regarding the fourth obstruction--do not read past this point if you do not want to know one of the film's bigger surprises) THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS shows von Trier and Leth at the peaks of their creative powers, but there's one more filmmaker in the midst doing tremendous work. Bob Sabiston, the director of animation for Richard Linklater's WAKING LIFE, comes to Leth's aid for the fourth obstruction. The animation is nothing short of stunning. What seemed like a terrible burden--make a cartoon--turns out to be a gift. How true that is in life too.