June 22, 2007

The Boss of It All

Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Jens Albinus

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

“Here comes a movie that is already a little weird,” Lars von Trier announces during the voiceover prologue in The Boss of It All. “You can see my reflection, but the film isn’t worth a moment’s reflection.” As the crane shot rises outside a building in an industrial park, a mirror image of the infamous Brechtian provocateur standing behind a camera emerges on the windows. Unlike The Kingdom in which he only served as a presenter, von Trier is the narrator here. “It’s a comedy and harmless as such. No preaching or swaying of opinions. Just a cozy time,” he assures. The film will “poke fun at artsy-fartsy culture.” Mmm, really?

The Boss of It All revolves around a Danish IT company where the owner Ravn (Peter Gantzler) has invented an absentee owner, Svend E., whom he blames for all of the unpopular decisions. When Ravn plans to sell the company and screw his employees out of their fair shares, he hires unemployed actor Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) to act the part of “the boss of it all”. Although he has provided Kristoffer little material to work with, Ravn apparently has been supplying contradictory characteristics about Svend to different employees. Kristoffer must fish out the expectation of each and react to him or her accordingly. So how precisely does this office comedy poke fun at artsy-fartsy culture? Leslie Felperin of Variety suggests that the film is spoofing the “good cop/bad cop” relationship between von Trier and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen. While that theory may be valid, it’s unlikely that von Trier has devoted an entire movie to a Danish film industry in-joke that would be pretty obscure to the vast majority of moviegoers.

“Theater unfolds itself at the point it ends,” Kristoffer says in the first scene, while applying soot to his forehead as part of his actorly ritual in tribute to some playwright named Antonio Stavro Gambini. Unless you’ve been following von Trier’s advice (about not reflecting on the film) from the outset, it would be pretty obvious that he is telegraphing the ending here. So perhaps the intended butts of the joke are the genre conventions and the viewers’ expectations. The IT company’s Icelandic buyer Finnur (a cameo by film director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson) soon criticizes the Danes for “dripping in sentimentality and the rest of the time they just giggle.” Lo and behold, Ravn and Kristoffer are giggling at this very moment. Then Kristoffer/Albinus delivers his line awkwardly, and the translator (Benedikt Erlingsson) comments that “The pauses confuse me. Could you repeat it faster?”

In the next scene, the company’s employee Lise (Iben Hjejle) confronts Kristoffer/Svend. “I don’t know actors that bad,” she says. “You are not who you pretend to be” – a prescient observation, albeit unintentionally so since she is really referring to his purported homosexuality. He soon bends her over the desk and has his way with her, perhaps to prove that his bad acting is on purpose – even though up until that point he has been oblivious to the fact that Ravn has been telling Lise that Svend is gay. So there it is: the humor of the film stems from its self-reflexivity. Since the film is reflecting on itself, von Trier is probably right about it not being worthy of our reflection.

Half way through, von Trier chimes in again to announce the necessity of introducing a new character. The visual doubling has Kristoffer and us initially mistaking her for Lise, but she is really the actor’s ex-wife Kisser (Sofie Gråbøl), who is now Finnur’s attorney. She fills him in on Ravn’s plan to cheat the company’s employees while throwing in a jab at von Trier’s own Dogme 95 aesthetics, and suddenly everything comes together for Kristoffer “like a Gambini exposition.” The actor soon attempts to coax a confession out of Ravn in front of the employees.

Frequently, von Trier invents new gimmicks that reinvigorate cinema for him and sometimes for the viewers. The latest is Automavision, which is credited as the cinematographer here. Basically von Trier would set up the camera, and then a computer program would decide where to frame, pan or zoom. This aims to limit human influence over the filmmaking process, and actors are often awkwardly cut out of the frame. One of the Dogme 95 “Vows of Chastity” dictated that directors should give up good taste, but we learned from Jesper Jargil’s documentary The Purified that most Dogme brothers could not lower themselves to adhere to that rule. Here von Trier has finally succeeded in shooting a film counter-intuitively.

Intentionally making matters worse, von Trier throws continuity editing out the window as well. In a scene set inside a movie theater auditorium, Ravn is holding a panda bear ice cream bar while carrying on a conversation with Kristoffer. The cherry nose on the panda’s face keeps switching color with each cut. Ravn and Kristoffer are shushed by their fellow moviegoers, but the shush also seems intended for us as if von Trier were anticipating that viewers of The Boss of It All would chatter about this continuity error. Then the two characters start making even more noises by tearing up tissue paper.

When Kristoffer/Svend is delivering the climactic speech, Finnur observes that the soliloquy’s “sentimentality is so nauseating, no human being would take it seriously.” Ravn breaks down and cries, so we laugh. But when Ravn confesses and reconciles with his employees, they make the mistake of “forgetting the actor” (i.e. Kristoffer). “Silence in the back!” He shouts, again seemingly addressing the actual viewing audience. Finnur wonders, “Is the idiot going to sign or not?” Funny, since Albinus played the ringleader in von Trier’s The Idiots. “Formalities have to be kept,” Kristoffer resolves, and then proceeds to carry out the ending that von Trier has promised us from the outset. Like Ravn, Lars the manipulator needs to be loved while his actors do the dirty work.

“I’ll have to get home,” von Trier says during the epilogue. “I apologize to those who expected more and to those who expected less. Those who got what they wanted deserved it.” So basically, whether the film works for you is dependant on whether you’re expecting a self-reflexive comedy that lampoons conventions, a satire on corporate culture, or just a cozy time with good ol’ Lars.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.