Given its overwhelming density of execution, it’s strange that some have considered Lars von Trier’s new film a light-hearted experience. The film has not been shot in the style of the director’s Dogme films or the bare-bones Brechtian manner of Dogville and Manderlay, but it’s scarcely uncomplicated. Using a camera technique called Automavision, von Trier was able to limit human influence on filmmaking by “choosing the best possible fixed camera position and then allowing a computer to choose when to tilt, pan or zoom.” It is not uncommon for the film to jump from some long shot on a group scene to a medium shot of two persons, then to some close-up of a person’s face where the head has been partially cut off by the top of the frame. This gives scenes the effect of having been shot multiple times or from countless angles at the same time by many different cameras, yet always feeling “on the fly”—almost like a live Oscar telecast. By itself, this isn’t an aesthetic breakthrough, but when coupled with the improvisational nature of the story, the film achieves something very close to brilliance.
Von Trier narrates, promising a trifling experience that the film decidedly is not. The plot will probably make less sense on paper than it does as it unspools on-screen. Ravn (Peter Gantzler), owner of a Danish IT firm, hires a failed actor, Kristoffer (Jens Albinus), to impersonate the fictional “boss of it all” his employees think is responsible for making all of the company’s touchier business decisions—all the way from the United States. At present, Ravn intends to cheat some of the company’s founding members in his attempt to negotiate the sale of the firm to an Icelander (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson) with an unpleasant opinion of Danish people. This crazy setup doesn’t make much sense, but von Trier is using irrational modes of expression to comment not only on his own modus operandi as a moralist and a filmmaker but the enterprise of making movies and directing actors in them. The Boss of It All seems to understand the process of acting as chaos theory.
The story is kept at an explosive, anarchic level as Kristoffer is forced to intimately interact with his employees, each of whom has come to be familiar with him in a way that is not all consistent with the version of the fictional Svend E. others have come to know. This becomes the impetus for a series of absurd comic encounters as Kristoffer tries to trick his employees into giving him hints about his fictional character without blowing his cover (Ravn, it must be said, gives him little to work with): He gets oral service from one employee who doesn’t buy his homosexuality, and in an equally combative and nail-bitingly prolonged encounter, he has to placate an employee over an email whose contents he’s oblivious to. By the end of this last scene, he will not only prove his worth as an actor (to us mostly) but unintentionally end up in a marriage contract. The relationship between Krisoffer’s exercise in “winging it” and von Trier’s jumpy aesthetic is both supportive and combative, with meaning intricately layered and the story always commenting on its own metarific self. Fuck me if I know what Boss of It All has to say about capitalism in its part of Europe or the relationship between Danish and Icelandic persons, but I do know its mouth-agape sense of comic brinkmanship puts it in the league of The Office.