How many great artists made their best work "obstructed" by form? For example, in her masterpiece "One Art," Elizabeth Bishop uses the structure imposed by the villanelle—a notoriously difficult poetic form—to drill down into the form itself, finding a particular poetic voice there. It is both profoundly moving and a thrill to read.
Filmmakers have long worked in form, though it is often viewed derisively as "genre" or "formula." This derision is, frankly, often warranted, though the auteur theory essentially argued that what Bishop did with the villanelle Howard Hawks did with the musical and the Western.
What makes The Five Obstructions so original is that it builds an experiment in form into a filmic structure of its own. And the artistic process here is dialogic as well as formal.
The premise of the film: director Lars von Trier makes a documentary about the process of challenging his mentor, filmmaker Jørgen Leth, to a filmmaking quintathalon. Leth must remake his most celebrated film, The Perfect Human, five different times under constraints imposed by von Trier. The film is structured dialogically as well, alternating Leth's films with their making. Like Bishop's poem, The Five Obstructions is both moving and exhilarating, virtuoustic and surprising. It is about filmmaking, but also about complex power dynamics between artists and friends. You've never seen anything like it.
—Erin Lee Mock, Director of Film Studies