The Perfect Human (Jørgen Leth, 1967) September 14, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in European Films, Short Cuts.
Danish Title: Det perfekte menneske
Directed by Jørgen Leth
Cast: Claus Nissen, Majken Algren Nielsen
Jørgen Leth introduces the perfect human by asking, “How does such a number function? What kind of thing is it?”
And he promises, “We will look into that, we will investigate that.”
The perfect human is represented by two people, a male and a female, each shown doing things as mundane as pulling a belt, applying some lipstick, zippering a shirt, clipping nails, or tying a shoelace. The narrator guides us to the parts of the perfect human’s face and body – – the ears, the knees, the foot, the eyes, and the mouth – – in a deliberate and exquisite use of zoom and closeup. As it continues, the description moves beyond the physical and goes mental. The perfect humans are in bed, naked. Then the male, as he shaves himself, starts to recount an experience. The two of them eat together, still with the voice guiding us, asking what is he thinking, describing to us what they eat, feeding us plain words, asking us questions that are simple yet the answers elude us.
The objective is objectivity. Leth, the narrator, tries to distance himself from his subject to examine it more closely. It comes out as if the perfect human in scrutiny is a specimen in a petri dish waiting for a series of tests, with the narrator as the mad scientist noting the littlest detail of its movement, somewhat considering any observation as development. But despite being scientific in his approach, Leth also gives room to his penchant for metaphysics. He inquires, “How does he fall?” and he answers, “This is how he falls.” He asks again, “How does she lie down?” and he answers, “This is how she lies down. Like this.” His questions aren’t asked to be answered, but to be thought about profoundly, which reveals the nature of his objective. The perfect human is the property; he is smaller than he thinks he is; and as soon as he starts to think, he becomes the property of his thoughts.
When the narrator muses, “The room is boundless and radiant with light. It is an empty room. Here are no boundaries. Here is nothing,” is he merely describing the lack of scenery or has he turned into a poet building castles in the air? Is he presenting the perfect human as an anthropological experiment or is he using it as an excuse to reflect on life and existence? It is always both, the one functioning alongside the other, expressing both the concerns of the material and the immaterial, and without losing the grip on the language of film and the vast horizons of poetry, Leth makes use of the power of words and images to conjure the realm of lucid interval, each filled with uncanny insight and absolute ambiguity.
Basically the reason why The Perfect Human endures as a popular short film, and why it continues to be Leth’s career-defining work, is because it will always be relevant unless one ceases to be human. It is ambitious yet humble, succinct but complete, and worthy without crying out for importance. Its critics would always point their fingers to its shitty artiness and highbrowism – – but with its simplicity and a running time of 13 minutes that covers almost every boundary of pensiveness, how could that be but a blow to their credentials? How could they understand it by explaining it? (Which I did, unfortunately.) How could they hate it by contradicting themselves? How could words be enough?
Echoing Claus Nissen’s immortal words after seeing the film for the nth time: Today, too, I experienced something I hope to understand in a few days. (Or, as it seems to me, in a few years.)