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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Five Uneasy Pieces
by Donald Levit

"Call him the King of the Know-Nothings. The Jupiter of Cinematic Three-Card Monte." And that's just the second and third sentences of a long consideration that came out yesterday and builds up scathing steam in condemning filmmaker Lars von Trier's career, honesty and artistry. Specifically, the movie sparking the critic's ire is Dogville, which for my part is at least a brave oddity doomed to box-office failure through its length and experimental audacity.

However one reacts to that concurrent study of the dark side of mankind in general or America in particular, Lars von Trier's The Five Obstructions -- done in conjunction with veteran fellow Danish director Jřrgen Leth -- is an unforgivable piece of cynical self-indulgence. To be fair, von Trier is like Catalonia's Salvador Dalí in that opinion runs all the way from genius through gadfly to hypocritical huckster. One viewer again and again laughed himself silly tonight: long blond-haired, perhaps he is a countryman catching verbal puckishness poorly served in subtitles. Another couple was mystified, understood nothing at all, while a young woman felt her personal jury was still out but noted that Obstructions is less misanthropic than the director's usual fare.

Officially, the film arises in a challenge, a sort of can-you-top-yourself rivalry. On the surface, it consists of some five variations on Leth's 1967 b&w The Perfect Human, twelve minimalist minutes which von Trier claims to have seen over a score of times and which observe two separate people eating, shaving, dancing, undressing, sleeping and snapping fingers against a white backdrop to direct flat commentary by its director himself.

Interlaced among these conditional remake-variations, however, is the true focus. The personalities of both directors interact, in grainy over- or underexposed handhelds, in hotel rooms and cars, split-screen phone calls and shots where they are directing or advising others or themselves rehearsing how to fall down or taking the lead rôle in an incongruous Bombay street meal for a vignette that is a retake. There's some banter and kidding between the two, but at heart it seems deadly serious one-upsmanship. In addition to the underlying mean-spiritedness of the thinly disguised hate-love relationship, there is a cruel, opportunistic voyeurism bringing to mind charges later leveled at the makers of Mondo Cane and certain globe-trotting novelists: playing his own Perfect Gentleman, like a Raj sahib Leth samples an elegant dinner barely shielded by a transparent (soon steamed) screen from starving women and babies in the awful Falkland Road red-light district; his insistence that doing so made him uncomfortable rings hollow, for he did after all go through with it and, only slightly rueful, can laugh about the event afterwards.

Since 2000, von Trier had been badgering his respected former teacher at the national Film School to do a series of remakes, with the proviso that for each one a condition be imposed: no more than twelve continuous frames or set in the most miserable place on earth, entire freedom or limited to cartoons or with Leth setting the obstruction. In Bombay, Havana, Brussels, Austin (Texas), Denmark or Leth's Port-au-Prince home, it becomes clear that this is not the professed digging to "the bone of filmmaking." Rather, bandying terms like tripping, chastise, perverse, punish, self-flagellation, expose, the result is sadomasochistic psychodrama that is unimportant if Scandinavian nasty. Beneath experimental veneer, the filmmakers stalk each other in this picture of childish egos masquerading as untrammeled brilliance.

Pseudo-in-group, tossing off "Sartre" and "Hemingway's historical wings," they would have us believe that, in deconstructing both traditional cinema technique and Leth himself, the process itself is analogous to psychotherapy, with the goal of forcing the older director to strip down to, and confront, his inner person. But a slip-up reveals the real "psychological truth": "the world will fall for it," von Trier pompously asserts, "and I call it art."

(Released by Koch Lorber Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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