In Search of Perfection

in 51th Sydney Film Festival

by Pamela Biénzobas

Nearly four decades ago, Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth made a short film called The Perfect Human. Recently, his compatriot and colleague Lars von Trier made this movie, and its author, the subject of his new radical questioning of the essence of cinema and humanity. De Fem Benspænd (The Five Obstructions) is the awesome result of this quest.

Von Trier talked Leth into a peculiar exercise: the latter would remake his short film five times, on each occasion following the “obstructions” imposed by Lars von Trier, who would do his best to force Leth into making a mediocre film. The obstructions involve all spheres: production, cinematography, editing, etc., but also ethics – human and professional. Von Trier pushes Leth to his limits. Leth accepts the challenge each time, and each time is able to turn the constraints into beautiful aesthetic results.

If the game might at times seem cruel or gratuitous, the surprising final short film leaves no doubt about the project’s ambition. After having developed before our eyes as a most lucid reflection on the creative and practical process of filmmaking, in its last segment The Five Obstructions fully reveals itself as an interrogation on human nature. The Five Obstructions is half way between a documentary about the film making process itself, and half a compilation of experimental short films (using categories that Von Trier deliberately makes ‘useless’ or just plain odd).

Structurally Von Trier’s film is the line-up of the original film and its five remakes, interlaced by the meetings held by the two filmmakers. They would get together to discuss and establish the new restrictions, and, once the remake was finished, they would analyze the result and decide on the new obstruction. Like the entire film, these conversations acquire their full sense at the end.

It is typically said that everyone, and especially an artist, needs to kill his father to come to terms with his own talent and creation. But surely all those who try, deeply wish their father is strong enough to resist. It is also said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. By putting Leth –and his 1967 film The Perfect Human- through this ordeal, Von Trier is paying them a passionate homage. Because he knows that, ultimately, the human Jørgen Leth and the celluloid Perfect Human will come one step closer to perfection.