Lars von Trier's "The Boss of It All" All Things to Everyone By Dave Kehr
by Dave Kehr
Lars von Trier’s first comedy since The Idiots (Idioterne, 1998), The Boss of It All (Direktøren for Det Hele, 2006) is a sweeping social satire set on a tiny scale, its scope limited to the offices and corridors of a Danish IT company owned by the apparently affable Ravn (Peter Gantzler). Ravn, a big, bearded man whose icon, proudly displayed by the employees who love him, is a teddy bear, turns out to be a ravenous capitalist in huggable disguise, who years ago invented a fictional “boss of it all” who stands above him, issuing the more unpleasant edicts the company needs to survive from a distant perch, somewhere in America. Svend, as the shadow boss is named, has proven his usefulness in the past when layoffs and cutbacks were necessary; he is about to prove invaluable, as Ravn prepares to sell his company to a hot-tempered, Dane-hating Icelander (played by the director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson) and cheat his six oldest employees out of their interest in the company’s successful computing platform. But a flesh-and-blood Svend is needed to sign the papers and complete the sale, so the businessman — as always, suggests von Trier — turns to the artist for salvation. Ravn hires an old acquaintance, Kristoffer, a pretentious, failed actor dedicated to the radical theatrical theories of an obscure avant-gardist named Gambetti, to impersonate Svend for his employees and prospective buyers.
Kristoffer is played by Jens Albinus, who played the aggressive, charismatic leader of the cult of self-willed morons in The Idiots, though here he is timorous and hesitant — another of the bumbling idealists, usually played by women, who live and suffer in von Trier’s world. Like von Trier’s sacrificial heroines, Kristoffer is in part a masochistic self-portrait of von Trier himself. The film begins with a voice over from von Trier, promising a light comedy, “not worth a moment’s reflection,” about an “artsy-fartsy type we can all enjoy making fun of” — and as he reads these words we can see him, sitting behind the camera, reflected in one of the plate-glass windows of the office building. With that doubled image, von Trier seals his identification with the central character, and The Boss of It All becomes, in the infinitely ambiguous von Trier manner, both an apology for the grim, moralizing tone of Dogville and Manderlay and the cinematic equivalent of a “screw you” — a passive-aggressive assault on the critics who rejected his unfinished (and now abandoned?) trilogy.
Kristoffer struggles to get a Method-like grip on his character, withdrawing into a trance to discover who Svend is and what Svend would do. Difficulties arise when it develops that Ravn has created a different Svend for each of the six senior employees, each answering to the employee’s particular needs and fantasies. The comedy, dry beyond dry, comes from Svend’s attempts to be what his people want him to be: A father figure to one, a passionate lover to another, a punching bag to a third. In a fascinating way, the character combines the attributes of both the actor and the director; he’s a puppet paid to be manipulated by others, at the same time he’s a leader whose job it is to impose his will and vision.
But for The Boss of It All, von Trier has abandoned his directorial will, or at least a portion of it, to a device he calls “Automavision” — apparently a sort of computer controlled camera mount that randomly disrupts the framing, knocking the actors nearly out of the frame at one moment, focusing on utterly irrelevant details at another. The jittery camerawork of the last few features is gone, as are the smeary outlines of digital video; instead, The Boss of It All has been photographed on 16mm film by a camera firmly set on a tripod. The film seems to be retreating into a kind of technical-mechanical impersonality: Where von Trier’s own fingerprints have been visible, almost literally, on every hand-held shot of his previous two films (he works as his own camera operator), the new film strives for an antiseptic, impersonal visual style. The computer-generated framing diminishes the role of the director at the same time it destroys the primacy of the actor. The mechanical eye of Automavision is not, like the human eye, instinctively drawn to the human face, but fixes instead on objects and emptiness — the spaces beyond or above the performer. The machine is not concerned with humanity, just as the businessman is not concerned with the fate of his employees.
There’s a lot going on here for a movie that announces itself as a bagatelle — a movie, von Trier promises in his voice-over, that you’ll forget before you get home. But the fascination of von Trier’s cinema is always to be found in its deliberate contradictions, in the paradoxes within paradoxes that he constructs so carefully and leaves to the audience to unpack and unravel. As with all of von Trier’s films, there will be viewers who enjoy the puzzles posed by his work, and viewers who will resent the lack of formal certainty and moral clarity. But a von Trier movie that everyone liked would be, by von Trier’s own definition, a failure. And a failure is one thing The Boss of It All certainly and clearly is not.