Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
As we approach the present day with the lengthy career of Danish director Lars von Trier, I find myself thinking more and more about the spots where his career doesn’t make sense. His trilogies are relatively well-considered, formal statements about recurring themes, but in between and stuffed into the nooks and crannies are the strange one-off film. These are rarely (read: never) his best work, but they’re usually very instructive about fixations that he seemed to just need to get out, or even indicators of where he might go in the future.
Well, that’s been true before now, anyway.
The Boss of it All (2006)
This movie opens with Lars von Trier apologizing for it. A meaner, grumpier version of myself would leave that as the most profound statement of my opinion on this movie, but in reality it’s just another one of von Trier’s directorial jokes. The movie opens with him dismissing it as light comedy, an idea-less romp that’s little more than a mass market break from his arty pretentious career, meant to entertain and then be forgotten. Of course, he narrates this as he films his own reflection in a camera outside of a window to a building, a tip to the artificiality of even his on-camera and public persona, a man who will (and does) say anything, even if it goes so far as to contradict things he’s said before.
Regardless, what he introduces is a seemingly light modern comedy, the story of a man named Ravn (Peter Gantzler), who at the beginning of the film is hiring an actor named Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) for a very peculiar part. You see, Ravn owns a small company that he wants to sell. The problem is that for years he’s pretended to all his employees that he’s not the boss, that there’s someone in America who makes all the decisions and he’s just the middleman. He offers a bunch of excuses for this, ranging from it being a bit of a lark that went on too long to wanting to not get blamed for unpopular choices. But it presents a dillema, as he needs this fake boss to show up and make the final sale.
So Kristoffer gets into character as The Boss of it All and shows up one day ready to make the sale. The problem is, the guys selling are being fussy about this stranger being brought in to conclude negotiations, so they want to take some time to think about it. Which means, while he’s there, Kristoffer had to play the part of the long-standing boss of all these people who know of him and have talked to him through emails that Ravn has been sending for years. And here’s where it really starts to derail.
The problem is it sets up an array of ridiculous situations for Kristoffer to react to, a sort of improv gauntlet, as he meets individually with all of these employees he’s supposed to know. One guy has been belittled by him for years and is angry and indignant. One woman has had antagonistic, name-calling emails and is convinced that Kristoffer is gay and that it’s her job to fix that. And there’s even one woman who he was supposedly carrying on a long-distance romance with, who is now convinced that he’s come to sweep her away. Kristoffer, trying to do his job right, refuses to break character and tries to become all things to all people, but his performances push them into doing or saying the things they only thought before, and soon everyone is in some sort of dramatic and/or farcical state.
It’s really broad, which could work if it were actually funny but at best it just feels really quirky. Maybe it’s the post-Office world talking but just throwing people in a workplace and giving them all one defining trait isn’t very interesting in either narration or comedy anymore. It seems old fashioned and dull, with jokes that are obviously set up and paid off and nothing feeling anything other than safe and easy. And without a sense of danger, there’s nothing here to play with. For all the ground this concept could introduce, it really just manages to land into the deadly realm of ‘vaguely stuffy’.
It ends, then, with Kristoffer finding some sort of kinship with these people, and when he discovers that Ravn’s deal means that he’ll make millions and everyone else will be fired, he takes up the mantle of boss and actually starts running the company, taking advantage of Ravn’s unwillingness to admit his long-running ruse in order to re-steer the company in a different direction. That is, until Ravn is pushed into a corner and finally admits the whole thing, only to discover that the employees knew it anyway. Everyone becomes friends, and it all looks like it’s going to end well.
Unfortunately for all the characters, Kristoffer is still in charge on paper, and right at the very end once everyone is ready to not sell and continue to work together in harmony he exercises his boss powers to sell the company and make himself rich and put them out of work. Not because he wants to be rich or anything, but because it was ‘what his character would do’. So nobody wins, except for maybe Kristoffer, who has won nothing but the attention he feels he deserves for his great acting performance.
The interesting thing about the movie, then, isn’t the premise but that von Trier has basically covered this ground before. In many ways, this is a comedy version of The Idiots, which was also about the potential perils and freeing nature of public performance, wrapped in the silly bureaucratic dogma that was far funnier and far weirder in The Kingdom. Mixing the two presents something of a weird, uneasy statement on acting and society, not uneasy in that von Trier says something uncomfortable but in that it seems petty and mean without much in the way of good reasons for it. Even the movies that push into uncomfortable territory before this are movies that at least have something to say.
I try not to offer a lot of qualitative accessment when writing these pieces, but honestly this feels like the worst movie von Trier has ever made. It’s dull and trivial, and I’d rather have the art house pretension of his first movies than lukewarm garbage like this. Of course, this is actually his best reviewed movie since Breaking the Waves, so go figure. That’s not really surprising, given how divisive his films are, and how violently some people react against them. But I’d rather see movies that inspire hatred than inconsequential fluff.