The Five Obstructions

(Lars von Trier & Jørgen Leth, Denmark, 2003)


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 “creative constraint”.

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 unforeseen places?

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 April 2014

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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