Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is best known to Americans for his English-language productions: Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005). Except for the first, all of these are set in the United States, and all are long, unpleasant stories.
It’s easy to admire most of those films, even while not precisely enjoying them. And, with the last two, it’s even easier to think, “Come on, Lars, we get it. God is arbitrary or nonexistent. America sucks. Good intentions can wreak more damage than evil. Could we have something a little different now?”
But von Trier has been giving us something different all along, in tone if not in message. In and among these big productions, he has also made several smaller, Danish-language films, such as Idiots and The Five Obstructions, that are more interesting and diverse than his epics. The Boss of It All is the latest and arguably the best.
After a brief narration, we meet an actor named Kristoffer (Jens Albinus), rehearsing in a bathroom. But he is not rehearsing for a film or a play; rather, he is about to perform a real life impersonation. A businessman named Ravn (Peter Gantzler) has negotiated a big deal with Icelandic investor Finnur (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, director of Cold Fever and Children of Nature). But he needs his own boss — the Boss of It All— to finalize things, and he is, for reasons we learn shortly, not available. Insisting there is nothing illegal going on, he has written out a few lines for Kristoffer to deliver in the persona of the big boss, granting Ravn power of attorney to seal the deal.
But the investor balks at settling with anyone less than the Boss of It All and demands Kristoffer hang around for the final signing, which gives our hero just enough time to muck things up by introducing himself (in character) to the employees, none of whom has ever met the Boss of It All.
The reason no one has met him is that he doesn’t exist. Ravn is the real boss, but wanting everybody to love him, he has, from the company’s inception, maintained the illusion of an absentee owner, a scapegoat on whom he can blame all his own unpopular decisions. Not surprisingly, the top-level employees have been simmering with for years with resentments and curiosity about their long-distance employer, and Kristoffer has to improvise frantically as they besiege him.
This is, in essence, a variation on a classic farce plot, in the manner of Gogol’s Inspector General. One has to look back to von Trier’s TV miniseries The Kingdom\\ (1994, 1997) to find him indulging his considerable sense of humor this blatantly. Dogville and Manderlay are both, in a way, comedies — ugly, cynical, ironic comedies – but not exactly what I’d call “funny.” The Boss of It All may have a streak of the same nastiness, but its humor is genuinely enjoyable; it’s one of only two von Trier films from the past decade (along with The Five Obstructions) that I can imagine happily re-watching.
Albinus looks a little like a Nordic Geoffrey Rush, with a long, hangdog face that occasionally invokes Woody Allen. His Kristoffer is a character whose attempts to do the right thing are constantly overridden by his oversized actor’s vanity. It is as though von Trier is exorcising a backlog of resentment and frustration from his dealings with actors within the frame of the story rather than (as has sometimes been reported) on the set.
Of course, if The Boss of It All is in part a self-reflexive metaphor for the construction of a screen narrative, then von Trier hardly lets himself off easy, either. Ravn has created a fictional character to keep his people in line; he is, in essence, the director of long-running soap opera and, as the Boss, Kristoffer is the character who has somehow taken on a life of his own, as characters are wont to do.
Von Trier famously established the Dogme rules that imposed arbitrary limitations on filmmakers. And the alleged (perhaps genuine) documentary The Five Obstructions centered on him hiring a former mentor to remake a short film but imposing even more stringent limitations on him, either as an act of sadism or as a benevolent attempt to kick-start the latter’s stalled creativity.
Here he imports yet another arbitrary influence into his work. The Boss of It All was shot using a system called Automavision, a John Cage-like experiment in replacing a director’s prerogatives with sheer chance: God (the director) playing dice with his cinematic universe, if you will.
“Automavision,” von Trier explains, “is a principle for shooting … developed with the intention of limiting human influence by inviting chance in from the cold and thus giving the work an ‘idealess’ surface free of the force of habit and aesthetics. Once the cinematographer has chosen the best possible fixed camera position and aperture from the artistic point of view, a computer programmed with a formula with limited range is asked to provide a list of offsets to be applied to: tilt, pan, focal length, aperture, horizontal and vertical positioning … [The filmmakers] may evaluate the modifications, and decide to drop the shot. But every time the camera stops, complete randomization according to the Automavision formula must take place again.”
Automavision, assuming this isn’t merely a joke on von Trier’s part, results in a lot of jump cuts and some distracting light shifts, but, for the most part, it neither helps nor gets in the way. And the script and performances in The Boss of It All are funny enough to overcome any of its problems.