The Five Obstructions dir. J¿rgen Leth and Lars von Trier

Opens Fri July 16.

The Five Obstructions is not for everyone; it may, in fact, be intended for no one. As a film, it's little more than artistic therapy--a fit bordering on outright masturbation, with two directors digging through the often unbearably turgid soil of film theory. It is also, surprisingly, a fascinating fit to watch unfold, perhaps even one of the best documentaries about the madness of filmmaking you're likely to encounter.

The idea is a great one. Director Lars von Trier, obsessed with a 12-minute film entitled The Perfect Human that his friend and former mentor Jørgen Leth created in 1967, issues a challenge to his fellow director: Remake the film five times, each time with a new set of obstacles. These obstacles will range from locations to chosen medium, and after each attempt, von Trier, from the cozy confines of his production offices in Denmark, will critique the final result, passing judgment on whether or not his old friend has succeeded at the task.

The limitations von Trier forces upon Leth are inventive and, often, wicked. For the first installment, the director is to remake his film--originally shot in black and white, with a pale background as its only set--in Cuba, complete with Cuban actors. Then von Trier adds a second, far more sinister demand: No shot is to last longer than 12 frames. Some quick math will tell you just how insane this second limitation is: 35mm film moves at 24 frames per second, making each shot Leth uses a mere half-second long. "It will be a spastic film," the filmmaker protests, but von Trier is unsympathetic; his goal is not to create something beautiful, but to destroy something he already finds beautiful. He wants to ruin The Perfect Human.

This desire to demolish Leth's film should come as no real surprise. Von Trier has always been a miserable brat, but his penchant for exploring the limits of cinema is one of his more endearing traits as a director. I may reject the notion that von Trier is a brilliant filmmaker--in fact, I despise nearly all his work--but he has an obvious passion for film. His ability to completely dismantle and examine every aspect of filmmaking--testing and prodding boundaries and, occasionally, tastes--should be respected, even though he himself, and his work, often should not.

In contrast to von Trier, Jørgen Leth is sturdy to a fault; whereas his former pupil is reckless and obnoxious, he is reserved and distant. He is also extremely talented, and that talent not only manages to make The Perfect Human: Cuba watchable, but shockingly beautiful; the 12-frame shackle proved far from the landmine Leth was anticipating, evidently, and the end result is a jittery and hypnotic collage, masterfully edited and often more engaging than its source material. This, of course, is sour news for Leth's tormentor, and for round two von Trier is in a punishing mind: Remake the film in the most miserable place he can imagine. Leth's choice: Bombay's horrendous red-light district.

The original The Perfect Human was a series of clean, polished tableaux--a rumination on human existence (or some such blubbering) filled with simple and cold images--but in Bombay Leth is forced to alter things dramatically. Von Trier's reason for sending his friend to such a place is to attempt to counteract Leth's detachment from his work, and as an additional parameter he informs his victim that he can't show the squalor around him--film on location, but don't film the location. Von Trier believes that Leth's normally solid eye will wither in such depressing surroundings, shattering the tone of his film, but once again Leth surprises him, turning in a piece that excels beyond both of their expectations.

This exceeding of expectations spins near the heart of The Five Obstructions, as part of the joy of watching the film is watching Leth overcome every obstacle. There are few things more thrilling than a flurry of creativity, and with each new assignment the director's talent rises to the occasion. Film number three, which von Trier forces upon Leth after he feels the director has cheated the rules for number two, is especially daunting: Remake the film with no limitations, an obstruction Leth bemoans as the worst of them all. How do you completely re-imagine a remake, after all, especially a remake of your own film? No worries, however, for Leth manages to make The Perfect Human: No Obstructions a thing of beauty, as he also does with film number four: animation, a medium he outright detests.

Throughout The Five Obstructions, von Trier handicaps Leth severely, and each time the elder director returns with something better than his previous effort--until eventually, for remake number five, von Trier is forced to alter the game dramatically. I won't give away just what occurs, but the finale manages to be both a fitting and surprising one, and, for the first time in a long while after having witnessed a creation from Lars von Trier, I left the theater happy. The Five Obstructions may just be a frivolous (not to mention expensive) game between two directors--often navel-gazey, occasionally more pretentious than an issue of Film Comment (which is no easy feat)--but if you love movies it is one of the best acts of frivolity you can experience this year.