The Boss of It All

Automavision/IFC First Take
Lars von Trier/Denmark-Sweden 2006

In a departure from the caustic deconstructionism of Dogville and Manderlay, Europe’s premier agent provocateur Lars von Trier adopts a merely wry, prodding tone in his latest Danish production. The result is arguably von Trier’s most enjoyable work to date.

Von Trier’s malign impudence is a spectral presence throughout The Boss of It All, even if he’s only briefly glimpsed in reflection during an introduction in which he informs us that this light-hearted comedy is not worth “a moment’s reflection”. You can almost hear him chuckling maniacally as he deviously pulls the strings for his unwitting human marionettes.

The set-up is devastatingly simple – if the cause of much subsequent complication – and is established within the first two minutes: For years, company director Ravn (Peter Gantzler) has pretended for years that he is subordinate to an absent, big-time “boss-of-it-all” Svend, who spends most of his time in the States. When an imminent take-over by an Icelandic company hinges on Svend’s presence, Ravn has to hire an actor, Kristoffer (Jens Albinus), to perform the role.

Unfortunately Kristoffer theatrically fluffs the part during deal-making and the sale is postponed, meaning he has to hang around and try to learn more about the IT company’s business. The suffering staff have been fed stories about Svend for years, as Ravn has been happily fobbing off his own inadequacies onto the imaginary boss. Kristoffer soon finds himself defending “his” actions and trying to work out who he has upset and what he has promised.

This leads to much hilarity as the new boss tries to guess the narratives of these imagined relationships, while Ravn duplicitously keeps him in the dark. In a stand-out scene, Kristoffer believes he is validating one staff member’s request for a promotion when in fact, he is agreeing to marry her.

These farcical complications are compounded when Kristoffer’s vengeful ex-wife is hired by the Icelanders as a lawyer to broker the buy-out. Kristoffer soon realizes what became apparent to Ravn years ago – that the best way to avoid confrontation is to accede responsibility to a higher force.

Although there’s none of the Brechtian devices von Trier has used in recent films, The Boss of It All stays pretty close to the puritan sparseness of the Dogme 95 doctrine. There’s no incidental music, the editing is roughshod, and camera-work often cuts off the tops of heads – although this last effect is the result of his use of “Automavision”, a partly computerized camera system. But this ramshackle approach is well-suited to the bumbling neuroses of the characters and the awkward office setting.

The most notable aspect of the film is its humor. Von Trier’s work during the last decade has generally been of the emotionally-pummeling variety, with the occasional satiric jibe or humorous aside thrown in for a bit of balance. But with The Boss of It All, von Trier shows a real adeptness at comic handling.

Some of the cringe-worthy, embarrassing situations bring to mind Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office. Although the emphasis is on the awkwardness of the situations rather than the awfulness of the characters. The lightness of touch also brings to mind the work of fellow Scandinavian director Aki Kaurismaki.

The performances are so understated and precise that they make the work of, say, Christopher Guest’s troupe of subtle actors look like the bombast of brazen Broadway vets. With no Hollywood stars to torment, von Trier uses a stock cast of Dogme regulars, with the surprise inclusion of director Friðrik Þór Friðriksson (Children of Nature) as the glowering, walrus-like Icelander.

Watching The Boss of It All, you get the feeling that von Trier has nothing but contempt for the office-bound lives of the many mortals who will comprise the film’s audience. The preposterous mendacity of day-to-day working life is savagely dissected, from the ridiculousness of modern business-speak (interestingly, many of these phrases are used in their unadulterated English form in Danish) to the crassness of the emotional relationships we build up at work. Goodness knows what sort of mischief von Trier would be up to if he’d never made it as a filmmaker and had to peddle his wares in an open-plan environment like this.

After his much reported troubles with actors on the sets of his last two films, The Boss of It All also seems to be a statement about the thankless task of being in charge and about how antipathy is always directed at the powerful. Let’s hope von Trier’s cruel and brilliant impishness is always allowed to be autocratic in accomplishment.

© 2006 James Rocarols. All rights reserved.

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