The success of The Five Obstructions depends almost distressingly on the audience’s cheeky sense of bad faith toward Lars von Trier (the myth, as opposed to the man, given that he wears his auteurist authoritarianism in the same manner of the Stroheim from whom he stole his bogus “Von”). And in that sense, the film contains von Trier’s most persona-clarifying performance since he more or less told the 1991 Cannes Festival jury to fuck off after his Europa went home with a runner-up citation instead of the Palme d’Or. Nestling in that woozy territory between documentary and essay-film whimsy, the film’s central conceit is that von Trier has concocted a diabolical challenge to artistically bind his fellow Dane filmmaking idol Jørgen. Von Trier, portrayed with total self-awareness as the impudent, brash, fiery bad boy of today’s art cinema, shaking conventions as he would apple trees (provided the apples were really festival prizes), tells Leth that he wants him to deign the chance to remake his 1967 short The Perfect Human (shown in clips throughout Obstructions, we take von Trier at his word when he calls it “the perfect film”). Not just one simple remake, but one broken into five pieces, each segment submitting to a barrage of limitations. For example, the first chunk can only be composed of takes that last no longer than 12 frames—for fun, listen to the arrogant film students in your audience, the same ones who will guffaw without inhibition at each Von Trier meta-reference, lean toward their plebe companions to inform them breathlessly, “That’s only a half-second!”
Between each challenge, the two meet up again, screen Leth’s latest piece of homework, and exchange notes (as well as shit-eating grins). As each challenge comes back in Leth’s favor (with the notable exception of the 3rd obstruction, where von Trier cruelly gives Leth total freedom, resulting in a ponderous, pretentious mess), the film’s carefully laid artifice becomes, at least on the surface, a fascinating statement on the nature of the artistic thought process, a testament to Leth’s undying sense of can-do. Far more cunningly, it’s also an underhanded apologia for von Trier’s own ruthless approach to filmmaking. Desperate situations call for desperate measures, and so when Leth manages to turn every obstacle into an opportunity to break the rules (and, thereby facing von Trier/status quo’s castigations of “you made a great film, but not the one I wanted; I want you to make a bad film”), it’s not difficult to weigh Leth’s cat-who-ate-the-canary self-satisfaction to von Trier’s own uncompromising recent life and times. (Even Dogville, which somehow managed to garner acclaim that’s relatively universal, against the odds of its context, has been somewhat more coldly received in Europe than in the States.)
This role-playing viewpoint is a heady proposal, but the film’s winningly obtuse execution invites highly interpretive audience involvement. In fact, the film’s seemingly obvious and embarrassingly tidy denouement, in which von Trier splices together a corny montage of Leth-at-work footage and forces Leth to read a letter in the first person that von Trier essentially writes to himself (and then makes him take director’s credit despite being totally von Trier’s work), is as likely to inspire passionate and divisive opinions as those of von Trier’s own films. Is von Trier simply forcing Leth to talk the whole undertaking down to the level of fifth-graders in one final fit of pique? Or is it meant, after spending an entire film struggling to connect with the art-house majority on their own terms (a claim I think is easily bolstered by the film’s extraordinarily warm reception at the screening I attended), to finally sever for once and for all his own obligations to audience acceptance by showing the fundamental mawkishness that can develop if an artist gets too chummy with an audience that loves and respects him?