The Five Obstructions

Jÿrgen Leth, Lars von Trier 90 mins, 15

Jonathan Romney
Sunday 09 November 2003 01:00
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For all the talk about his grand themes - redemption, abjection, female martyrdom - what's often forgotten about Denmark's master provocateur Lars von Trier is that he's first and foremost a games player. His films are invariably stylistic exercises, attempts to sustain an entire movie on a seemingly impracticable formal conceit: his recent Dogville (released here next year) is a three-hour theatrical experiment acted on a bare sound stage without scenery. And let's not forget that the Dogme movement he started was originally intended not as a method of achieving starkly unmediated visions of reality, but rather as a game governed by 10 arbitrary rules, designed to force film-makers into finding drastic new solutions to storytelling problems.

Von Trier's collaborative documentary The Five Obstructions is less a film than a tennis match: it ought really to be credited "Jørgen Leth vs Lars von Trier". Leth is a much-respected Danish film-maker active since the early Sixties, as well as a poet, a sometime sports commentator and Denmark's Honorary Consul in Haiti (hence the otherwise unexplained shots of him in Port-au-Prince). In 1967, Leth made the 12-minute film The Perfect Human, extracts from which we see throughout The Five Obstructions: it features an actor called Claus Nissen, first seen doing a frenzied lounge-lizard dance in a dinner jacket, then eating a meal, occasionally intercut with a young woman, all accompanied by a voice-over in clipped Janet-and-John style ("Watch him now. Watch him all the time.") The subject appears to be the classic Sixties theme of alienated Western man, though it's unfair to judge, seeing Leth's film in such disjointed fashion. Still, von Trier apparently admires it and claims to have watched it at least 20 times. The Five Obstructions begins with him welcoming Leth to his Copenhagen office and proposing they play a game: Leth is to remake The Perfect Human five times, each time observing a set of restrictions that von Trier will put in his way. Most of these he seems to invent on the spot, some in reaction to a chance remark of Leth, who, despite his imperturbable exterior, quickly decides to keep puffing his cigar and say as little as possible.

Von Trier's first stipulation is that the film should be remade in Cuba, with no shot longer than 12 frames. Leth initially feels he's been nobbled from the start, but gamely goes off and makes El Hombre Perfecto, which turns out to be quite dazzling. The 12-frame rule results in a symphony of stuttering jump-cuts and kinetic movement, punctuated with flashes of Havana skyline and newspaper clippings. Welcoming his opponent home ("Jørgen! You're looking great - that's not good!"), von Trier is dismayed to see that Leth has won the first round by taking the obstacles as a gift.

Von Trier says he wants not to inspire Leth, but to push him to his limits, to make him feel like a tortoise stuck on its back. His cruellest obstruction is to suddenly give Leth absolute artistic freedom. This is the only time Leth is really thrown, and the result is a conventionally polished split-screen job featuring sex, thriller elements and a real star, German actor Patrick Bauchau; it looks like a 1980s Volvo ad.

More successful is the command to make a cartoon. Leth is dismayed (he and von Trier profess to hate the form), but hires American animator Bob Sabiston, whose style, transforming live footage into liquidly shifting planes of colour, you may recognise from Richard Linklater's Waking Life. The result is breathtaking, though von Trier sniffs that it's a little bit MTV.

The most disturbing exercise is intended to challenge Leth's stance of thoughtful objectivity: he is to make a film in "the most miserable place on earth". This gives us the excruciating sight of Leth in the red light district of Bombay, dining on fish and Chablis in full evening dress while the bemused local population watch him, cordoned off by clear plastic sheeting. Leth is clearly uncomfortable - he's brought his Valium just in case - but then, he has chosen to accept von Trier's conditions. While von Trier never intended Leth to show Bombay's poverty directly, Leth twists the commission so as to produce a brutal cartoon of Western consumption: the plastic sheet shows the Indian crowd and its exclusion, so that what's really on display is the Western consumer unaware of the Third World literally at his back.

The offensiveness of the image is what makes it satirically trenchant; but it's still appalling to watch Leth shooting it. It's hard not to feel that the sequence goes beyond the acceptable bounds of gamesmanship, and it is debatable how much The Five Obstructions finally makes an effective political point about cinema's ethical responsibility towards the world. Yet the real Western monster on display is von Trier, the archetypal businessman-deity sitting in his office sending emissaries to do his bidding in whichever disadvantaged corner of the world he pleases. In setting the rules and taunting the placidly sporting Leth, he's every producer who ever imposed his maniac whims on a film, and the more you see him, the more you want to slap his impishly smirking face.

Von Trier's final trick is to insist that the fifth film be made by himself but carry Leth's name as director; he also makes Leth read, in his own name, a voice-over that von Trier has written. The final "remake" is made up of footage from the two men's encounters, with Leth supposedly commenting on his and von Trier's relationship; it's the least interesting of the five shorts and ends the film inconclusively, but it does serve to remind us that Leth is not the only film-maker who ever had to sign his name to material effectively made by an abusive megalomaniac behind a desk. In that sense, the film is one of the most acute studies of the film-maker/ producer relationship since Godard's Le Mépris. Somehow, though, shuttling from Copenhagen to Bombay to Brussels and back, Leth seems to have been spared the one "obstruction" that film-makers usually worry about most: budget limitations. You can only conclude that von Trier saved a few bob by skimping on the sets in Dogville.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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