Lars von Trier, the Danish director of "Breaking the Waves," "Dancer in the Dark," and "Dogville" returns with a strange and brilliant meta-film. In 2000, he challenged his mentor, the veteran filmmaker Jorgen Leth, to a one-of-a-kind director's game: von Trier would give Leth rules, or obstructions, by which Leth would have to remake his own 1967 short film "The Perfect Human"--five times.
The first film, according to von Trier's rules, has to be composed of shots no longer than 12 frames and must be filmed in Cuba, without a set. Fast forward to Havana: Leth has found a solution to the difficulties and is making his film with confidence. With satanic glee, von Trier comes up with an even more constraining set of obstructions, clearly taking pleasure in torturing his former teacher. He attempts to find the most crippling rules and devises appropriate punishment when Leth fails to follow them.
Lars von Trier is no stranger to sadism: this is the man responsible for the abuse of Emily Watson, Bjork, and Nicole Kidman in his last three features. "The Five Obstructions" makes it clear that his apparent mean streak is considered, focused, and aimed at a kind of creative catharsis. His agenda is to strip away the pretense, to get from the "perfect" to the "human," as he puts it.
Von Trier is hoping to force his former teacher to make a bad movie, a "pile of crap," but the truth is that creativity feeds on limits: the resulting short films are all terrific. To see how Leth discovers ways to use the devilish obstructions to his advantage is nothing short of thrilling. "Everything inspires you!" the frustrated von Trier complains. The directors' game reveals itself as something more than an empty exercise in style: von Trier had a secret agenda all along, but by the time the fifth film unreels, the ambiguities have multiplied, and it's not clear anymore who exposed himself more, or who obstructed whom. In this creative mindgame, the only clear winner is the audience.