Admittedly it did not take a great deal of time to locate downloads of Det perfekte menneske (The Perfect Human, 1967), a film short by this Danish writer and filmmaker and the basis of this recent film. Film short here means all of twelve black–and–white minutes in the life of a rather attractive young Scandinavian couple dancing, grooming, bathing, eating, dressing, undressing, and discovering the contours of their outward genetic advantages. A voiceover done by Leth himself does not wonder how such perfection was achieved (an old argument), but how it is maintained and, most modernly, how simple daily actions are beautified because the agents performing them look fresh off a modeling shoot. Given the hints at the couple’s vapidity, the voiceover and the images provided are sufficiently ironic to make the short palatable to film studies offerings up to this day, something to be seen once or twice, discussed at length, and then stashed between copies of Metropolis and Wild Strawberries. Or in Lars von Trier’s case to be seen twenty times and turned into a hypnotic exercise in self-awareness.
If these downloads and my stopwatch are to be trusted, then by taking in all ninety minutes of The Five Obstructions, we actually see about half of Leth’s original short interspersed. More than enough to get the idea and enough in any case to highlight the game which is afoot: the remaking of the film with substantially different criteria. These criteria, says von Trier, who seems to be draining a cocktail in every scene, are better referred to as obstructions because the point of having Leth remake his short is to reexamine both the ethics and worthwhileness of the whole endeavor. How can twelve minutes of Blow–up–type footage merit such scrutiny? If you follow von Trier (usually a very wise option), then it is precisely the inherent shallowness of the short that makes it the perfect test subject. Leth, a man of discernible ego and one recently besmirched by some rather nasty rumors, is up for the challenge, perhaps if only to harpoon the massive bubble that he mistakes for von Trier’s swollen head. Yet von Trier is not trying to show off. He is trying to prove that art without clear morality may only enjoy ephemeral and topical success. Nothing is more old–fashioned than the hopelessly modern, remarked this famed hedonist (who was really an old moralist), and Leth’s short, however popular and trendy in his day, now appears like a Mesozoic fossil against von Trier’s revolutionary (and sometimes hyperrevolutionary) back–to–basics Dogme 95 approach. So, Leth grudgingly concurs, a few updates may be overdue.
The first obstruction is to film The Perfect Human in Cuba — a place where Caribbean connoisseur Leth had some issues a while back — in Spanish, without a set, and, most annoyingly, with only twelve frames. Since twenty–four frames is standard, an unpleasant choppiness obtains that frustrates Leth more than the viewer. After passing this first test and evincing signs of incredulity, Leth is pushed much further by the second obstruction. Von Trier begins his request by inviting Leth to sample some forenoon vodka and caviar, which von Trier claims should only be eaten with a bone china utensil, then moves to talking about “the most miserable place in the world.” What is the worst patch of humanity or inhumanity that Leth has ever experienced? Sensing a debacle of immense proportions, Leth thinks about lying then confesses that there is nothing more hideous for a godfearing man than recalling in dream the red light district of Mumbai:
I had one of those rare nightmares you remember when you wake up. I thought it had a bit of a Faustian pact to it ... Where fear transforms into madness, when you have to avoid sleep not to fall back into that nightmare.This obstruction, which contains a few other minor stipulations, has become the poster piece for the film and the one in which Leth comes closest to losing the icy and objective distance for which he is renowned. Can there be anything more off–putting than a gourmet meal in a tuxedo and a shave before a screened–off mass of undernourished onlookers? At first Leth mocks “this notion that I’ll be so affected, that it will be visible, quantifiable,” attributing von Trier’s insistence on squalor to pure “Romanticism.” “There’s no physiological law,” says Leth, “that says you will have too much.” Yet physiology is not the reason that we watch the amazingly reserved Leth change his mind little by little, even if changing his mind means that von Trier was right.
The other three obstructions will not be mentioned here. With each episode, Leth is granted less creative control and more incentive to strangle von Trier, who does at times seem to be having his fun. But it is fun of the finest kind, a parody of hard–held tenets of fashion and kitschy solipsism that are blown out of the water by von Trier and his principled band of Dogmeists. Not to say that Leth was a purveyor of this type of stuff, but the irony he intended at the time is no longer valid because it is satirical and engages trendiness on its own dull terms. Despite its odd format and brittle accord of oneupmanship, calling The Five Obstructions pretentious is hardly accurate. They are nothing but what they claim to be: five methods of reorganizing one’s approach to the values of observation. When von Trier objects to Leth’s showing the poor of Mumbai (“One thing I asked is that we don’t see those people”), we know that we shouldn’t have seen them because, first and foremost, he wants Leth’s reaction to them, and with them there, we hardly see Leth at all. And the famous quote that begins “today I experienced something that I hope to understand in a few days,” uttered by “the perfect man” while shaving and then by Leth while in Mumbai, becomes less of an imbecility and more of an epitaph: the days of beautiful decadence and luxury worship are over. Long live the rugged realism of craftsmanship.