For those who may be wondering, the new Lars von Trier picture The Boss of It All is not — well, not exactly — a self-portrait of its famously autodidactic auteur. Nor is it another visit to the chalk-outlined America that provided the setting for von Trier’s much-ballyhooed USA trilogy (which, following the commercially disastrous Dogville and Manderlay, remains a mere diptych). The red-white-and-blue object of von Trier’s long-distance disaffection isn’t entirely absent from The Boss of It All, but it figures only in passing, as the adopted home of the film’s title character, the president of a Copenhagen-based IT company. Except, as we discover early on, this mythical, Oz-like figure, whom none of his employees has ever actually met, doesn’t live in America at all. In fact, he doesn’t even exist.
The real boss hereis a man called Ravn (Peter Gantzler), who started the company a decade ago, but whose nonconfrontational demeanor has prevented him from telling his workers that he is the one who holds their fates in his hands. He wants to be loved, not feared, and so he has invented a phantom to shoulder the blame for his executive decisions. Now, as he moves to sell the company to a surly Icelandic businessman (hilariously played by Icelandic director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson), he must make that phantom appear in the flesh. So he hires an out-of-work stage actor called Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) to play the part, and The Boss of It All is about how that actor, as actors have been known to do, comes to identify a little too strongly with the role.
However one felt about Dogville and Manderlay — and I happened to like them both — they undeniably represented von Trier at his most polemical, whereas The Boss of It All finds him in the more playful mode of his prankish disability comedy The Idiots and the scary-funny TV miniseries The Kingdom. He even appears onscreen in the movie’s opening frames to tell us that there will be “no preaching” in what follows, “just a cozy time,” and definitely nothing that willmerit our reflection afterward. But as its farcical situations fall into place with the smooth precision of carefully lined dominos, The Boss of It All turns out to have quite a lot to say, actually, about loyalty, the temptation of the almighty dollar, and corporate buck-passing as a kind of Olympic sport.
The film is, on one level, an ideal workplace comedy for the era of downsizing, outsourcing and fantasy accounting. On another, it feels like a revealing checkup on the health and well-being of its creator’s career. Von Trier turned 50 while making The Boss of It All, parted ways with longtime producer Vibeke Windeløv and returned to working in Danish with a predominately Danish cast following three consecutive, star-studded English-language productions. Like the character of Ravn, he seemed to have come to some sort of professional crossroads, perhaps the inevitable consequence of an enfant terrible arriving at middle age. But despite its small scale, a premise that recalls (of all things) the 1993 Ivan Reitman comedy Dave, and the best efforts of its own maker to disparage its significance, The Boss of It All finds von Trier once more staking out new — if somewhat troubling — formal ground. Indeed, this may be the first movie in history whose own director downsizes himself out of a job before it’s over. (No wonder that, just last month, news reports emerged suggesting that von Trier was suffering from a crippling depression.)
A decade after von Trier and a cabal of filmmaking countrymen took a semi-infamous “vow of chastity” and a movement known as Dogme was born, The Boss of It All was made in accordance with a new set of Larsian dictates. Called Automavision and described in the press notes as “a principle for shooting film developed with the intention of limiting human influence by inviting chance in from the cold,” the process cedes control over a film’s images and sound mixing from trained technicians to a computer program designed to randomly change settings at the touch of a button. (To wit, Automavision is credited as the cinematographer of The Boss of It All.) Colors and angles and sound levels don’t match from one cut to the next. The images are ugly as sin. For von Trier, who once told an interviewer that moviemaking had become too easy because “all you have to do is buy a computer and you have armies rampaging over mountains, you have dragons,” it’s as if he’s found a cinematic way of showing us how close we are to the time when movies will be directed by machines instead of artists. Perhaps he’s telling us that we’re already there.
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THE BOSS OF IT ALL | Written and directed by LARS VON TRIER | Produced by META LOUISE FOLDAGER, VIBEKE WINDELØV and SIGNE JENSEN | Released by IFC Films | Monica 4-Plex and One Colorado