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Challenges extended, accepted

A playful, at times nefarious back and forth emerges between two directors in 'The Five Obstructions.'

June 04, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"The Five Obstructions" is a complete original. This ingenious, almost indescribable film won't remind you of anything else because there's nothing else like it. In only 90 minutes it encourages you to reexamine the nature of cinema, the sources of creativity, the unexpected joys of the unanticipated moment. And it couldn't be more fun to watch.

"Obstructions" results from the fusion of energies of a pair of Danish directors who seem to have little in common. Lars von Trier, the talk of Cannes after "Breaking the Waves" and "Dancer in the Dark," is abrasive, provocative, difficult. Jorgen Leth, a maker of shorts and experimental works who's nearly 20 years Von Trier's senior, is elegant, composed, unflappable and little known in this country.

What both men turn out to share is a keen intelligence, a passion for cinema in general and for one film in particular, a 12-minute 1967 short called "The Perfect Human" that Leth directed. Von Trier, whom Leth taught in film school, says he's seen it at least 20 times and claims it as one of his all-time favorites. He loves it so much, it turns out, he wants to destroy it.

For along with his love, Von Trier, the born troublemaker, has a visceral antagonism toward "The Perfect Human," a whimsical, precise, perfectly composed mock-anthropological examination of the male and female of the species. "It's a little gem," he says to its creator with unconcealed enthusiasm, "we are now going to ruin." So the two directors make a pact. Leth agrees to remake his film five separate times, with each new version conforming to a series of conditions, the obstructions of the title, decreed by the increasingly diabolical Von Trier.

This results in a feature put together from a variety of parts. "The Five Obstructions" shows major sections of Leth's original opus as well as each of the five films he makes to Von Trier's exacting specifications. On view too is verite footage of Leth going out and making those five films. Also shot on the fly, and perhaps most involving of all, are the conversations between the two men, both when Von Trier presents Leth with the obstructions to be overcome and when Leth comes back to present his interlocutor with the finished film.

These conversations follow the same irresistible pattern, the exhilarating back and forth that Leth compares to a high-tension aesthetic tennis match. "It's very much a dialogue playing back and forth across the net," Leth explains. "He serves hard, and we return as hard as nails. He serves again, a deadly serve, and we have to pull our best shot out of the bag to return."

First serve always goes to Von Trier, determined to make Leth as miserable as possible, to force him to mar the flawless surface of his classic film.

In his first set of obstructions, among other things, he doesn't allow Leth any shots that last longer than 12 frames, or half a second of screen time. In his second set, he makes Leth go to the most miserable place on Earth (it turns out to be the heart of Bombay's red-light district) and play the lead in the film himself.

Leth invariably responds by moaning and groaning, talking about Valium and claiming to be completely flummoxed by his adversary. "It's completely insane," he is wont to say of a Von Trier obstruction, "it's impossible, totally destructive." Then, always the gifted counterpuncher, Leth coolly goes out, fulfills the condition and makes a fine short film in the process. When Von Trier complains, "You're so clever that whatever I do inspires you," and Leth ripostes, "I can't help that," you have this process in a nutshell.

At a certain point, Von Trier, admittedly "furious when it turns out there are solutions" to his conditions, ups the ante on his obstructions, becoming, if possible, even more devious. It wouldn't be fair to reveal what he insists on and how Leth responds, but each new set of challenges takes both Leth's filmmaking and the philosophical underpinnings of the exercise, the question of whether obstacles enhance creativity, to a new, even more involving level.

What is perhaps most satisfying about this crossroads of amiable sadism and film art is the way it makes you believe again in the power of cinema to create mood and magic. More than anything, "The Five Obstructions" is a billboard for the infinite possibilities in the filmmaking process.

The more movies you've seen, the more likely you will respond to this intellectually provocative exercise. On the other hand -- and with "The Five Obstructions" there is always another hand -- no matter how few films you see in a year, this impish motion picture should be one of them. That's how remarkable, how truly original it is.


'The Five Obstructions'

MPAA rating: Unrated

A Koch Lorber Films release. Directors Jorgen Leth, Lars von Trier. Producer Carsten Holst. Executive producers Oeter Aalbaek Jensen, Vibeke Windelov. Cinematographer Dan Holmberg. Editors Camilla Skousen, Morten Hojbjerg. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Exclusively at Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223.

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