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Friday, 1 January 2010

The Boss of It All (2006)

Director: Lars von Trier
Stars: Jens Albinus and Peter Gantzler
'Here comes a movie, and if it already looks a bit weird, then hang in there, because anyone can see it.' This is a Lars von Trier movie that begins with the aforementioned line and a strangely framed pan up the side of a building where we see the camera reflected in the glass windows, and proceeds to unfold using a camera technique called Automavision, which leaves the composition of frame up to a mechanical device rather than a cameraman. It makes the film look utterly different from anything else, the power of chance making the film look as if it's being shot by someone about as uninformed as the lead character, played by Jens Albinus.

He's Kristoffer and he's only the nominal boss of it all. The narration calls him a 'self-important out-of-work actor' who's landed 'a very special job' and it's certainly not the sort of thing that most actors would play. He's there to haul Ravn out of the fire, a man who started up an IT company without the guts to acknowledge to his own employees that he was in charge, so invented a fictional company president to hide behind whenever needed. Ravn is quite capable of making tough decisions but he's utterly incapable of standing behind them, so every one of these decisions is made instead by 'the boss of it all'. His problem is that now he's making the toughest decision of all, to sell his firm to an Icelandic company, effectively firing all his staff and screwing them all out of their intellectual property, so he needs the boss of it all more than ever.

'Hello, so we finally meet,' Kristoffer practises. 'I'm the company president.' Unfortunately the single speech he's supposed to give to the Icelandic buyer isn't going to cut it. Finnur Sigurddson wants him back on the 12th to sign the contract, which means he can't just take his fee and exit stage left, he has to hang around and actually meet the people that supposedly work for him. Needless to say this is beyond awkward and it really challenges his talents as an actor, to improvise on the spot to an often hostile audience. The comedy here is that he's utterly unprepared for any of this, not knowing a single thing about IT and apparently even mistaking HR for a biker gang; and what's more, in the boss of it all, Ravn has created a nightmarish morass of inconsistency for Kristoffer to build his character out of.
The Six Seniors, the six people who effectively financed, designed and ran with the company's flagship product, all know a little about him through his apparent actions and because he's communicated with some of them over the years by e-mail. However this was consistent only to each recipient, given that what was sent fit only the needs Ravn had at the time. So Lise the HR rep thinks he's hot for her even though he pretends that he isn't, and she sees him as setting her up to cure him of his imaginary homosexuality. When Heidi A was planning to leave to join a competitor, the boss of it all wooed her back by sending her letters from around the world and eventually even proposing to her. He fired Mette's husband who promptly hanged himself, adding yet another uncomfortable tension. Office politics may be dramatic but they're even more so when you've supposedly been taking part in them for ten years but have no background at all.

It's difficult to absorb everything that's going on in this film, because it has notable depth, depth that helps to underline the fact that Lars von Trier is perhaps the most innovative and consistently fresh filmmaker working today. It isn't just about the characters we watch at this Danish tech firm and how they've been consistently screwed over by a man they see as a teddy bear, though we can watch it as a corporate drama if we so wish. It isn't merely about the interplay between the members of a small community after the introduction of a character that forces them all to reevaluate everything, though that's fascinating too. I'm sure some could even conjure up a take on European history, comparing Denmark to Iceland, which it ruled for 400 years, by comparing the cowardly Ravn to the belligerent Finnur, the seller to the buyer.
Truly though these are all just fronts because the real story is about the psychological make up of the actor. It compares the actor with the character and explores the relationship of the two. Kristoffer, this self-important out-of-work actor, has the ego to pretend to an audience that he's someone else, which after all is what all actors do for a living. He's merely acting to the other characters in this film in the same way that Jens Albinus is acting to us. With the memorable closing lines, 'Those who got what they came for, deserve it,' von Trier is suggesting that the real boss of it all is the character and that while Kristoffer has to listen to Ravn's instructions during their meetings on neutral ground, he has to surpass them and become the character, the boss of it all, even to the end.

This means that Ravn gets what he created, not what he hired, and there's more than a little irony in that. When Ravn and Kristoffer first meet over the script he's to read to the Icelandic buyer, the actor finds genius in it. 'It says far more than it says,' he says to Ravn, who replies, 'I had hoped it would say as little as possible.' These events were out of his hands from moment one, yet they're all there entirely because he set them into motion. The same could be said for von Trier himself, who wrote and directed, as he tends to do. He invented the situation, and while he asks us during the opening narration to dismiss everything that follows as mere comedy he really gifts us with that lesson in inevitability.

Just as he leaves the camerawork to the process of Automavision, removing the human element and leaving the aesthetics to chance, he leaves the story to the process of character development, removing the human being and leaving the actor. Hardly von Trier's most famous film, it eschews the back to basics Dogme philosophy, the deliberate minimalism of Dogville or the palpable lushness of The Element of Crime and instead goes down a whole new road, one that, like most of von Trier's films, sharply divides critics and moviegoers. Yet while Dogville was a sucker punch, this is more of a sneaky thought provoker and it reminded me very much of Ingmar Bergman, asking questions of itself and the arts of acting and filmmaking. It's going to stay with me.

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