A truly one-of-a-kind motion picture. In 2001, famed director Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, Dogville) decided to submit his cinematic hero, Danish documentarian/experimental filmmaker Jørgen Leth, to a rather sadistic series of tests: Over the following two years, Leth was to take his own 1967 short The Perfect Human (which Trier loves so much that he calls it "the perfect film") and remake it five times, each time under several new artistic restrictions (or "obstructions") arbitrarily cooked up by the devious Trier. After finishing each film, Leth would watch it with Trier and get his next assignment.
What seems at first to be an exercise in variations on a theme becomes a far more complicated intellectual examination of human nature, authorship and manipulation. Playing off the title of Leth's short, Trier's purported goal is to make the over-achieving Leth move from the "perfect" to the "human" as a filmmaker: to allow himself to lose control of his work, to make a bad film. And so the obstructions are explicitly designed to prevent Leth from doing what he wants to (the first set of rules forces Leth to keep every shot under 12 frames - half a second - and to shoot his film on location in Cuba).
The surprise is that Leth takes Trier's obstructions and, time and time again, uses them to his advantage, with surprisingly strong results (most of which we get to watch in The Five Obstructions). So while Leth is making a statement that creativity is inspired by restrictions, the increasingly frustrated Trier starts realizing that the joke is on him.
Or is the joke on us? After a while, I started wondering if the whole film is something of a put-on. (I had to check online to make sure that there really is somebody named Jørgen Leth and that he actually did make a short back in 1967 called The Perfect Human.) There is a sense that Trier's discovery - that Leth's perfectionism is what makes him human - was not something that occurred during the making of this documentary, but was the very reason behind it. Yes, this is what my friend Rob would call "Advanced Film Watchin'." Highfalutin, brainy stuff. But The Five Obstructions is wholly entertaining, never slow or repetitive, and Leth's work is remarkably flashy. If this comes to your town and you're up for seeing something different, run out and catch it.