Five Difficult Pieces

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Lars Von Trier, the Danish auteur OF Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, positively revels in his reputation as a demonic director, a sadist-artist. He's known to torture actors — and often audiences — with his bizarre methods of moviemaking. With The Five Obstructions, he exercises his movie malevolence on a fellow filmmaker (and Dane), the veteran Jorgen Leth.

Von Trier professes to idolize Leth's 1967 short The Perfect Human, an elegant, mock-anthropological treatise on man's imperfectability. But to Von Trier, a hero is still a potential patsy. He dares Leth to remake The Perfect Human five different times, each under bizarre conditions imposed by his sponsor. Whatever humiliation Von Trier imagined, Leth makes the results (and the film that documents them) fascinating. The Five Obstructions is a kind of reality-TV show for art-movie lovers — an up-market Fear Factor — and, finally, proof that art is created not despite but because of the impediments surrounding it.

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If The Perfect Human had been a novel, Von Trier might have demanded that Leth rewrite it as a comic book, a haiku, a recipe, an ad slogan and an epic poem — and that the letter e never be used. But it is a movie. So remake No. 1 must be filmed in Cuba and have no shot longer than 12 frames, or half a second. The location of remake No. 2 must be "the most wretched place in the world" (some might have said a Von Trier movie set, but Leth chooses Mumbai, formerly Bombay). When the filmmakers have a chat about their mutual hatred for animation, Von Trier decides that remake No. 4 be the shoddiest possible cartoon.

Leth, a genial gent who serves as Denmark's honorary consul in Haiti, finds each of the obstructions "satanic" and "ruinous." He's like the well-behaved weekend guest of a dotty lord who has refurbished the bedrooms in his country house as torture chambers. But Leth is also a game fellow who realizes, perhaps more quickly than Von Trier, that all art has its rules and that the stranger the rules, the more fun in following and subverting them. Leth's Cuban segment is a suave and colorful abstraction; the cartoon (made in collaboration with Waking Life co-director Bob Sabiston) is a handsomely rendered restatement of his original film. He does so well that Von Trier becomes increasingly exasperated. "You made a great film," he says after seeing one segment, "but not the one I wanted. I want you to make a bad film."

The only bad film Leth makes is remake No. 3, in which the obstruction is no obstruction and Leth has the freedom to do as he wishes. Without the arbitrary guidelines, Leth delivers an unfocused mess. But even that botch has instructive value. It shows why a director's most personal work often fails and why masterpieces are made within the confines of genre: film noir, western, Cuban movie in half-second shots.

The next time you hear a director complain about the studio or his stars or the weather or whatever, think of what Jorgen Leth achieved with Lars von Trier as his boss — when five obstructions became five splendid opportunities.