America, that recurring object of Lars von Trier’s long-distance disaffection, figures only in passing in The Boss of It All, as the adopted home of the title character, the president of a Copenhagen-based IT company. Except, as we discover early on, this Oz-like figure, whom none of his employees has ever actually met, doesn’t live in the U.S. at all. In fact, he doesn’t even exist.
No, the real boss here is a man called Ravn (Peter Gantzler), who started the company a decade ago and in a bid to be loved, not feared, invented a phantom to shoulder the blame for his executive decisions. Now, as he plans to sell the company to a surly Icelandic businessman, Ravn must make that phantom appear in the flesh. So he hires an out-of-work stage actor (Jens Albinus) to play the part, and The Boss of It All is about how that actor, as actors have been known to do, comes to identify a little too strongly with the role.
However one felt about Dogville and Manderlay—and I happened to like them both—they undeniably represented von Trier at his most polemical, whereas The Boss of It All finds him in a more playful mode. He even appears on-screen in the movie’s opening frames, impishly informing us that there will be “no preaching” in what follows, “just a cozy time.” Thanks, Lars, but surely we know well enough by now not to take anything in one of your films at face value. As its farcical situations fall into place, The Boss of It All turns out to have quite a lot to say, actually, about loyalty, the temptation of the almighty dollar, and corporate buck-passing as a kind of Olympic sport.
It also feels like a revealing checkup on its creator’s career. Von Trier turned 50 while making The Boss of It All, parted ways with his longtime producer, and returned to working in Danish with a predominately Danish cast following three consecutive star-studded English-language productions. But despite its small scale, a premise that recalls (of all things) the 1993 Ivan Reitman comedy Dave, and the best efforts of its own maker to disparage its significance, The Boss of It All finds von Trier once more staking out new— if somewhat troubling—formal ground.
A decade after von Trier and a cabal of film- making countrymen took a semi-infamous “vow of chastity” and a movement known as Dogme was born, The Boss of It All was made in accordance with a new set of Larsian dictates. Called Automavision and described in the press notes as “a principle for shooting film developed with the intention of limiting human influence by inviting chance in from the cold,” the process hands over control of a film’s images and sound mixing from trained technicians to a computer program designed to randomly change settings at the touch of a button. (To wit, Automavision is credited as the film’s cinematographer.) Colors and angles and sound levels don’t match from one cut to the next. The movie is ugly as sin to look at. But it’s all intentional on the part of von Trier, who once told an interviewer that moviemaking had become too easy because “all you have to do is buy a computer and you have armies rampaging over mountains; you have dragons.” Now he’s showing us how close we are to the time when movies will be directed by machines instead of artists. Perhaps he’s telling us that we’re already there.