My summer with Lars: Filmmaking as suffering in "The Five Obstructions" (2003)

The Five Obstructions might be considered one of LvT’s B-sides, along with Epidemic, The Boss of It All, and Medea.  These are minor works, which isn’t to say that they’re not good (Epidemic has been one of the pleasantest discoveries of this project), simply that they’re more modest, more idiosyncratic projects.  It’s also worth noting that they tend to be funnier and perhaps loopier than weighty epics like Breaking the Waves, Dogville, and Melancholia.  They often resist being grouped together with his other films, many of which divide neatly into trilogies; even though Epidemic technically belongs with The Element of Crime and Europa, its off-handedness and cheeky self-referentiality set it apart from those other films.  The Five Obstructions occurs at a particularly interesting point in vT’s filmography, coming after the triumphant success of Dancer in the Dark (which won major awards at Cannes in 2000) and before his embarking on the as-yet-unfinished U.S.A. trilogy, which would take him into more controversially political waters.  It is vT’s only documentary feature, an experiment in which he forces his “hero,” the filmmaker Jorgen Leth, to re-make his 1964 short film The Perfect Human five times, each time confined by a different set of technical limitations. 

vT’s persona in The Five Obstructions is that of the merry prankster who takes delight in setting up challenges for Leth and who expresses sardonic disappointment when Leth refuses to give him the satisfaction of becoming disgruntled.  “You’re looking great,” vT greets him with a smile every time he returns from one of his assignments.  “That’s bad!  You ought to look battered.”  At times, vT’s behavior edges into sadism, and we’re reminded of his supposed torture of Bjork on the set of Dancer in the Dark.  Does The Five Obstructions offer certifiable proof of vT’s cruelty, or is he performing sadism for the camera?  (From as far back as Epidemic, vT has been canny about manipulating his own onscreen presence a la Hitchcock.)  At times he appears to be playing the part of the stern professor (“you haven’t followed the rules…”) to Leth’s student.  The notion of “obstructed” filmmaking should also call to mind vT’s own participation in the Dogme 95 “Vow of Chastity,” which prescribes its own set of rules and prohibitions for filmmakers (no use of artificial light, special effects, non-diagetic music, etc.)  vT’s purported aim in “obstructing” Leth is to humanize him: put under pressure, Leth’s own status as “the perfect human” will be threatened—hence vT’s frustration when Leth remains relatively composed, and even manages to deliver successful films in spite of the restrictions.  Again we come back to the quintessential vT scenario, in which only by suffering can one truly achieve one’s goals.  True filmmaking, like true humanity, depends upon obstruction.  In this sense, The Five Obstructions is a side project that comments on mainstage productions like The Idiots, vT’s own exercise in obstructed filmmaking. 

This Sunday, I put on my iron collar and head to America—or rather “America”—in vT’s Dogville.  Until then, I’ll be listening to this to get in the mood…

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