Lars von Trier’s The Boss of It All, opening this weekend at Shattuck Cinemas, is something of a departure for the Danish director. He has returned to Denmark and the Danish language to produce, for the first time, a comedy, and a rather light-hearted comedy at that. No politics, no commentary, no overarching cinematic code of ideals to weigh down his creation—just a clever idea, a witty script and a talented cast.
An unemployed hack actor (Jens Albinus) is hired to impersonate a non-existent corporate boss in order to facilitate the sale of an information technology firm. Trouble is, the actor’s benefactor (Ravn, played by Peter Gantzler) is the true owner and has been masquerading as an employee for 10 years, manipulating his colleagues to his own ends while blaming his unpopular decisions on the never-seen CEO, a faceless entity named Kristoffer who has been running the company by email from the United States.
When the hapless actor is brought in to sign away the company in a private meeting with an Icelandic buyer, a firestorm of nationalistic tensions interrupts the negotiation and spills out into a corridor where the company’s employees catch their first glimpse of the man they believe is “the boss of it all.” And thus begins a convoluted series of interactions in which “Kristoffer” is constantly forced to improvise, trying to match his performance to the various preconceptions of the employees, all of whom think they have developed some sort or relationship with the man via e-mail, though in fact all of those interactions were with puppetmaster Ravn. At times Kristoffer benefits from these situations, and at times he suffers; he finds himself sexually involved with one employee, romantically linked to another, and the source of anxiety and anger for several more.
Ravn starts off allowing Kristoffer a great deal of leeway in shaping his character, but increasingly tries to usurp more and more control. The actor of course rebels as he gains confidence in the role, pompously delving deeper and deeper into his character’s motivation until, with the help of his ex-wife, who coincidentally works as an attorney for the Icelandic buyer, he finally taps into a few crucial insights that will allow him to alter the course of the intra-office melodrama. That said, he doesn’t necessarily glean much insight into himself, and one of the closing scenes features a hilarious episode in which the actor essentially holds up the plot’s resolution for an extended meditation on his character’s motivation, the obvious point of which is merely to draw attention to himself and his self-proclaimed mastery of his craft.
It all makes for an entertaining film, a clever comedy that uses the familiar construct of mistaken identity to stage a more complicated self-reflexive commentary on film and theater, on acting, directing and filmmaking.
Von Trier breaks the fourth wall in the first shot by introducing himself and the principal characters, following with a vow to dispense with artsiness for the duration of this “harmless” comedy. Yet this is a particularly artsy method of poking fun at all things artsy, and the director continues to emphasize the artifice of the film at crucial junctures, at one point taking center stage to announce that he has decided to add a new character to the mix just to further complicate the plot. Thus von Trier never lets us forget who is really the boss of it all.
Von Trier uses many of the principles of the stripped-down Dogme school of film that he co-founded, but with a lighter, less didactic approach. He eschews artificial lighting, makeup and scoring, for instance, but employs a unique and decidedly un-Dogme-like technique for photographing the film called Automavision. Von Trier selected each camera setup, but then employed a computer to randomly select various parameters for the shot, tilting the camera, changing the focal length or shifiting the composition. The computer controlled a similar set of parameters for the sound recording. The result is a film that is constantly shifting, as though through a series of jump cuts, giving the impression that the scenes and dialogue were patched together in the editing process.
But what we’re really seeing is a framing device that has removed the human element and replaced it with computerized randomness. Most viewers won’t notice the technique on a conscious level, conditioned as we’ve become over the years to hand-held cameras, jump cuts and disjointed editing. But thematically it works, as the constantly shifting perspectives mirror the shifting alliances and realities of the characters, adding to the confusion and chaos of a situation over which the principal players—and to some extent the director—have lost control.
THE BOSS OF IT ALL
Written and directed by Lars von Trier. Cinematography by Automavision. Starring Jens Albinus, Peter Gantzler, Thor Fridriksson, Benedikt Erlingsson, Iben Hjejle, Henrik Prip, Mia Lyhne, Casper Christensen, Louise Mieritz, Jean-Marc Barr, Anders Hove.
99 minutes. Not rated. In Danish with English subtitles. Playing at Shattuck Cinemas.
Photograph: Peter Gantzler and Jens Albinus negotiate a contract in The Boss of It All.