Cinematic perversity in Denmark

Lars von Trier baits Jorgen Leth with his own masterpiece

Gabriel Shapiro

To those with a knack for babble, the occasion of being struck speechless is at once beautiful and disconcerting.

To be held in spellbound awe of an experience, especially one packaged in the guise of an all- too-mundane trip to the cinema, is magical and life-affirming, but also disorienting and awkward. These feelings collide after viewing Lars von Trier’s latest assault on the human mind, “The Five Obstructions.”

The premise is simple enough, if a bit fiendish. Von Trier assigns his mentor, fellow Dane Jorgen Leth to remake “The Perfect Human,” a short film Leth made in 1967. But rather than one straight remake, von Trier imposes a number of conditions, most importantly that the challenge will be carried out five times.

Upon each individual outing von Trier imposes further conditions that Leth needs to adapt to while crafting his response.

The results are mind boggling. Two master filmmakers have found a playful way to stretch the limits of their medium and its storytelling ability. This film should instantly be required viewing in every film class. Von Trier has always won critical acclaim, but in this instance he and Leth are totally bare. The viewer gains a rare insight into the process behind the brilliance.

This film seems a fitting follow-up to “Dancer in the Dark,” in which von Trier spends a couple of hours torturing Bjork’s character, Selma, occasionally breaking the dramatic tension with over-the-top musical numbers. This time real life is the interjection, and von Trier is stepping back to manipulate another filmmaker. After he blends and twists the film’s outcomes from afar, von Trier awaits Leth’s return and report. These little documentary vignettes punctuate the film, giving the men a chance to talk about almost anything and have a few laughs.

To break down each of the challenges here would be to miss the point. Too many reviews have taken this approach, missing the movie as a whole, as it is presented and meant to be understood. There is no benefit to discussing the blow-by-blow details, except to say that each is more fascinating and bizarre than the one before. The bigger picture is the battle of wits, wills, artistic visions and filmmaking methods.

To revel in chaos might be to appear mad, just as seeking to control everything might appear. But to create something beautiful from either might forgive any madness.

Von Trier is a master of madness; Leth is a controlled and controlling old-guard figure. These two giants meet on screen and the results are simply spectacular.