In 1967, experimental documentary filmmaker Jorgen Leth made The Perfect Human, a black-and-white short about two people (Claus Nissen and Majken Algren Nielsen), who are being observed in an empty white room. They are examples of "the perfect human", according to an unidentified narrator (Leth), who questions their odd behavior and strange habits. The Perfect Human is one of Danish director Lars Von Trier's favorite films, and Leth one of his favorite people. As a documentary experiment of his own, he convinces Leth to take part in an ambitious attempt at deconstruction: remake The Perfect Human five times, each with a new set of artistic restrictions placed on Leth by Von Trier.
As someone who had heard about The Five Obstructions long before I got a chance to see it (there was talk a few years back about Von Trier doing a version of the experiment with Scorsese and Taxi Driver), there's a degree to which its premise precedes it. Although many will be intrigued by the concept of seeing a piece of work recreated within certain boundaries, in a way that might repurpose or redefine the meaning of details in the original, The Perfect Human is so amorphous and open to interpretation to begin with that Von Trier's obstructions are transformative. The films that result from his instructions are mostly remakes of The Perfect Human in the broadest sense -- think less of the two RoboCops, to name a recent example, but of the way 12 Monkeys is a "remake" of La Jetee. The influence is recognizable, even direct, but they are fundamentally different.
This specificity stems from the fact that the challenges are not based on The Perfect Human, but Leth himself. Although the rules are naturally artistic in nature, Von Trier wants to see his friend step outside of his comfort zone, and they are concocted more as obstacles to his specific process, rather than simple exercises to stretch his cinematic muscles. Challenges like "no edits over 12 frames long", "shoot it in a miserable place", and "it must be a cartoon" (which both Von Trier and Leth consider banal) aren't about technique, but stem directly from what Von Trier knows of Leth's process. Whenever the two sit down to watch a completed film and discuss the next one, a friendly mixture of tension and humor fills the room as Von Trier gleefully reveals his newest restriction, and Leth takes in its personal deviousness.
The original Perfect Human is an open-ended existential or philosophical puzzle, questioning the nature of the "perfect" human, or if such a thing is even possible (I hope to understand more in a few days). Five complete remakes of the 13-minute film, plus the original, would run roughly 80 minutes, but The Five Obstructions only runs 87 and focuses primarily on production and discussion. As directors of The Five Obstructions, Leth and Von Trier never reveal to us if we're seeing the entirety of Leth's remakes, but most of them manage to become more abstract through shorter runtimes and an increase in specificity. Three of them manage to faintly or openly suggest some sort of spy action behind the events. None of the films appear to follow the narration of the original very closely, although the perfect man's description of his dream is re-used.
Throughout each of the productions, Leth is energized by the natural need to motivate himself to complete each challenge. 12-frame edits give the first obstruction a hyperactive, flickering vibe. For the third obstruction, Von Trier gives Leth no requirements at all, and Leth devises a fascinating split-screen narrative about a distinguished "perfect man" and mysterious "perfect woman" meeting each other in limousines outside a power plant. The fifth and final obstruction is different than the preceding four, focusing even more on the relationship between Leth and Von Trier. Much like the comments by the specimens in The Perfect Human, it's a detail that transforms the film that came before it, refocusing the subject of the documentary from the artistic experiment to something much more personal. Some will find the way The Five Obstructions nearly ignores its set-up to be frustrating, but at its core is something more human, in all of its imperfections.
Previously, Koch Lorber released The Five Obstructions on DVD, and their art (of Leth and Von Trier, reflected against each other across the horizon, the photo of Leth from the second obstruction) has been repeated here, albeit with new quotes, the Kino Lorber logo, and a banner across the top identifying this disc as remastered. The single-disc release comes in a standard DVD case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
The Five Obstructions was mostly shot on early-2000s consumer-grade DV cameras, and thus, this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is often ugly, but also faithful. Aliasing, ghosting, blown-out highlights, and a measure of smeariness are all common in this footage. Footage from The Perfect Man (the original) also exhibits ghosting, and was probably sourced from some sort of PAL-to-NTSC transfer, although this is "baked in" and thus slightly less intrusive. The new obstructions generally look pretty good, although some aliasing is still noticeable. The transfer itself may also be interlaced, which is visible when the film is paused. Audio is a no-frills 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo track, capturing the dialogue, but also reverb and ambient white noise from hotel rooms and homes where Leth and Von Trier talk. Two English subtitle tracks are included on the disc, but neither subtitle the English portions of the film, and neither appear to be captions, so I don't know what the difference is.
Of course, the first extra -- one of the rare instances when the viewer may want to check out the special features before seeing the film -- is Leth's short The Perfect Human (13:00). There are a couple of minor caveats to its inclusion: this version of the film features English narration, with large white subtitles inside black boxes imposed on the screen when Claus Nissen speaks.
The other extra is an audio commentary by Jorgen Leth, in English (under the set-up menu). This seems like an informative and interesting track from what I sampled, but it's also a pain in the ass to listen to, as the film audio is too loud and constantly interferes with what Leth is saying. After a few minutes, attempting to power through it tested my patience. Very disappointing.
An original theatrical trailer for The Five Obstructions is also included.
The Five Obstructions is probably best suited toward fans of Leth's work, fans of Von Trier, or both, but those viewers will find it a fascinating document of friendship and compassion through art. The DVD is a little underwhelming, advertising itself as remastered when the elements don't allow for much improvement, and the primary supplement is ruined by poor mixing. For the film, recommended.
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