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Lars Von Trier tries his hand at comedic satire in 2006's The Boss of It All (Directøren for det hele), a clever office politics movie with a Danish twist. A deadpan actor takes on a 'role' in a business scam that soon develops into an enjoyable farce with a number of original surprises. Von Trier hasn't given up experimentation, as The Boss of It All debuts an intrusive and distracting process called 'Automavision'.
Right at the outset, director von Trier reveals himself on a camera crane hovering outside the offices of Ravn's IT company, telling us that that the silly comedy we are about to see is unimportant fluff. He interrupts the proceedings once or twice to apologize further. Luckily for us, once we adjust to the eccentric Kristoffer, The Boss of It All rises to inspired comedic heights. The outwardly sweet and benign Ravn is soon revealed to be a conniving and dishonest schemer. The loyal employees offer up chants of solidarity ("Ravn! Ravn!") for their beloved office manager, unaware that he's underpaid them, stolen their software triumph "Brooker 5" and is preparing to cash in the company and leave them jobless.
Von Trier's story works because it exploits workplace dynamics in a way easily understood by any office employee anywhere. The greedy Ravn wants his employees to make him rich, but he also yearns to be loved. So he pretends that he's just another employee making the best of things under an unreasonable Evil Boss. The working world abounds with 'user' executives like Ravn that motivate their underlings to sacrifice for higher productivity in the name of company spirit. The manager takes the credit and receives a promotion, but the only reward for the staff is likely to be a higher benchmark of required productivity. As Ravn, Peter Gantzler has his 'loveable co-worker' act down pat. Ravn oozes empathy and sincerity but is a pathological liar incapable of keeping a single promise.
Jens Albinus' Kristoffer is a flop at pretending to be a company president, but both his employees and the brusque Icelandic buyers interpret his odd behavior as the shield of a genius hiding his real motivations. It's obvious at meetings that this supposed "Boss of It All" knows nothing about how the company works. Kristoffer replies to the engineers' direct questions and accusations with comments like, "Hm. And what do you think?" After Kristoffer panics, Ravn assures him that all will be fine and that Ravn will back him up if the staff becomes too aggressive. But when the employees demand to know why their annual company outing will again be canceled, Ravn immediately points at the clueless president. "I don't know. You'll have to ask The Boss of It All."
We immediately relate to the cast of Scandinavian oddballs. The Viking-like buyer from Reykjavik shouts out his scorn for stupid Danes and their sentimental hogwash. He claims that Denmark was once a possession of Iceland, and not the other way 'round. Under Ravn's manipulative supervision, the employees have retreated into strange behavior patterns. The head engineer Nalle (Henrik Prip) is suspicious of Kristoffer, but Lise (Iben Hjejle) decides that Kristoffer's hesitation is really a come-on for hot sex, and proceeds to seduce him right in his office.
To keep office assistant Heidi (Mia Lyhne) on the job, the cruel Ravn has sent her fake long-distance romantic Emails from the Boss; the terminally shy woman is thrilled when Kristoffer's uncomprehending responses 'confirm' that he's returned to Denmark to marry her. Kristoffer encounters another woman, Mette (Louise Mieritz) in the photocopy room. Whenever he tries to speak to her she bursts into tears. Ravn's policies have apparently had something to do with her husband's early death!
Just when all seems chaos, Kristoffer discovers that the legal representative for the Icelanders is his estranged wife Kisser (Sofie Grabøl), who left him because he obsessed over his role in a weird marathon play about a chimney sweep. Kisser decides to let her ex continue with Ravn's charade, just to get the papers signed. At the signing ceremony the Icelander Finnur discloses that as soon as the company is his, all of its employees will be fired. When Kristoffer balks, Ravn can't tell if the puppet president has moral misgivings, or is just trying to pad his performance!
The Boss of It All is a clever comedy with a couple of crude moments and a needlessly sour ending in which Lars von Trier once again emphasizes his godlike role as director. The acting is excellent and von Trier's writing fresh and witty. Preparing to play the company president, Kristoffer smudges his forehead with soot -- to connect with his previous stage persona as the existential chimney sweep!
IFC First Take's DVD of The Boss of It All is an excellent enhanced transfer of this very odd movie. The format is enhanced 16:9 widescreen, although the box text erroneously says "4x3". The Special Features menu lists two mockumentaries that turn out to be opportunities for the actors to clown about and make fun of the cultural clash between Iceland and Denmark. A normal featurette The Making of The Boss of It All simply shows Lars von Trier at work on the set.
A second featurette, Automavision: The New Dogma" (sic) is an eye opener. The Boss of It All credits its cinematography not to a cameraman but to "Automavision", despite the fact that the BTS footage shows the crew busying itself with the oddly-mounted camera. Unlike hand-held Dogma 95 films, the camera is always locked in a fixed position. The movie takes place on the sunny side of an office building, and is filmed without extra lighting. The colors are cold. The faces of actors with their backs to the sun are often dark.
When first watching the disc, we get the feeling that it was perhaps transferred at the wrong ratio, as people's heads are frequently bisected or cut off entirely. The featurette explains that this is a result of von Trier's Automavision system. The camera is mounted on a special rig and aimed pointed in the general direction of the actors, but a randomizing computer program determines its final framing. When two people talk, we may see mostly the ceiling above them, or one of them may be almost out of the frame. In a few shots, the subject isn't there at all. Von Trier keeps the image alive by cutting constantly between awkward, compositionally random angles. As we're keen to follow the contours of the story, the choppy camerawork is a definite distraction.
In his interviews we half expect von Trier to reveal Automavision to be an elaborate joke, but the director speaks of the system as a serious cinematic experiment. The filmmaker and his 'Automavision developer' Peer Hjorth discuss the rationale behind the involved process, which boils down to the idea of eliminating conscious compositional direction from the filmmaking process. Without a director focusing the viewer's attention on specific elements in a scene, von Trier argues, the viewer must decide for himself what to look at. As if building on that idea, Von Trier has purposely planted a number of "Lookey" objects that don't belong in scenes, and has made finding them into a local contest.
Ultimately, the process is a superficial visual exercise imposed on an otherwise conventional commercial film. The exact framing may be computer controlled, but the director still chooses what will be seen and heard; if a particular angle is too radical, von Trier cuts it short, or substitutes another. The angles are edited into a familiar pattern of masters and reaction shots stressing conventional continuity. Automavision's chaotic images have been shoehorned back into an ordinary 'directed' style.
Just as the Danish Dogma 95 adherents by necessity deviated from their manifesto's 'vow of chastity', Von Trier cuts corners on his own rules. Shots that approximate normal framing still predominate. In the sex scene, the 'random' camera view and precise jump cutting discreetly avoid any XXX-rated content: commercial considerations override Automavision's cinematographic instincts. Fifteen years from now, The Boss of It All will look like an appealing comedy undermined by a cinematic stunt. If von Trier doesn't want to control anything, why does he only go part way? He wants to randomize his camera's point of view, yet imposes a story, actors and scripted dialogue onto his film, as would any other director.
One dialogue line in The Boss of It All makes an amusing reference to the Dogma 95 movement, a sincere desire to jettison the aesthetic restrictions of locked down shots, fancy lighting and extraneous music scores. When faced with her uncommunicative former husband, Kisser sighs, "Life is a dogma film. It's hard to hear, but the words are still important."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Boss of It All rates:
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