Lars von Trier has a rich history of enigmatic works that aren't exactly pick-me-ups: 2005's Manderlay, before that Dogville, and in 2000, the musical that made Björk swear off acting, Dancer in the Dark. He's also one of the founders of the Dogma 95 movement, which requires conformity to a strict set of limiting rules in the making of a qualifying film; in a way, the strictures are to film what haiku is to poetry. Beyond that, von Trier clearly tends toward the obscure, the surreal, and in many cases, the macabre.
So when the Danish filmmaker chose to make an office comedy, he felt fit to insert disclaimers. He punctuates The Boss Of It All with appearances to address the viewer directly, somewhat like a Greek chorus role. As the film begins, we see the reflection of von Trier in the windows of a large building, behind the camera, rising on a crane. "Though you see my reflection, this film won't be worth a moment's reflection," he advises. "It's a comedy, and harmless as such." And it is, but it's a von Trier comedy, and can't help but come to fixate eventually on the psychological.
The film follows Kristoffer (Jens Albinus), an actor obsessed with playing his part right, as he takes on a rather non-traditional role. Ravn (Peter Gantzler), founder of a Danish IT company, has hired him to play "the boss of it all," a fictional company president he has created as a foil for himself, an imaginary managerial bad cop to his good. It begins innocuously: Kristoffer must appear and say a few lines to prove his existence, then sign a power of attorney allowing Ravn to negotiate for him. Ravn can then sell the company to Finnur (longtime von Trier collaborator Fridrik Thor Fridriksson), the boisterous Icelandic businessman who is looking to snap it up.
Things become more complicated when the Icelander refuses to deal with Ravn and insists on negotiating with the president directly; Kristoffer must expand his role, and stay on to sign the papers. It quickly becomes clear that through "the boss of it all" ruse, Ravn has woven a web of lies around his employees that Kristoffer as an actor can't possibly live up to; the farce begins.
Filmed in what von Trier has labeled "Automavision," a semi-automated process that he invented which combines the vision of the filmmaker with computerized panning and zooming, the film is at times herky-jerky, calling to mind a poorly edited documentary. In many scenes, however, the bizarre apparent lapses in time complement the surrealistic settings that von Trier alternates throughout with the banal.
While the self-referential moments are ambiguously either self-reverent or self-deprecating (a character proclaims that "[l]ife is a Dogma film. It's hard to hear, but the words are important," and it's unclear whether that's a joke or a religious tenet on the director's part), ultimately the film provokes a good laugh at the expense of playacting, of both the theatrical and everyday varieties.
It is of course the character studies -- as in most office comedies, and office life in general -- that provide the most over-the-top anecdotal humor. A series of sketches develop the characters and their neuroses, as revealed through their relationships (cultivated by Ravn) with the boss of it all. At points, a Ricky Gervais cameo feels imminent.
It's clear from some of his plot twists that von Trier deliberately took pains to privilege humor over the heavier issues at hand, but as the story develops, the plight of Kristoffer as the conflicted individual faced with the irrevocable absurdity of his situation adds a depth that sets the film apart from much of contemporary office comedy. Perhaps against von Trier's own intention, one finds oneself pondering real -- if hilariously portrayed -- ethical dilemmas before the end of The Boss Of It All. In Danish, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., July 13. Harris