Easing Off America, Lars Von Trier Lays Into Denmark, For Once

sarris boss2h Easing Off America, Lars Von Trier Lays Into Denmark, For Once The Boss of it All
Running time: 99 minutes
Written and directed by: Lars von Trier
Starring: Peter Gantzler, Jens Albinus, Iben Hjejle

Lxars von Trier’s The Boss of It All, from his own screenplay, gets him off America’s case for a while and onto Denmark’s as the 400-year-old colonial exploiter of Iceland, which is one of the comic conceits of this freewheeling farce from the stormy petrel of Scandinavian cinema. Indeed, Mr. von Trier has been causing critical convulsions around the world for almost a quarter of a century, beginning with his first feature film, The Element of Crime (1984), continuing with Epidemic (1987) and Zentropa (1991), and reaching some sort of crescendo with Breaking the Waves (1996), followed by various degrees of diminuendo with The Idiots (1998), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005), the first and second parts of his so-called American trilogy. (The third, Wasington [sic], is promised—or threatened—for sometime this year. The misspelling of the name of our national capital and/or the Father of Our Country is probably Mr. von Trier’s little joke about making three films about our country’s failings without his ever having visited our shores.) Along the way, he has also issued the Dogme 95 manifesto with its “Vow of Chastity,” as well as two other similarly provocative if not presumptuous statements allegedly intending to promote simplifying reforms in filmmaking, almost as if he and he alone were empowered to dictate the rules of the game.

In this respect, The Boss of It All might be mistaken for a sloppy piece of moviemaking if we had not been alerted by Mr. von Trier to seek hidden subtleties and profundities within his jagged, seemingly illogical editing and his endless Danish and Icelandic dialogue scenes, whose plethora of English subtitles make it more difficult than usual to focus on the visual images. Not that there’s much scenic variety in the mise-en-scene, which is confined for the most part to a real Copenhagen office.

In this more or less “authentic” setting, Ravn (Peter Gantzler), the owner of a technology firm, has decided to sell his Danish company to an Icelandic conglomerate. Ravn has one problem: When he started his enterprise, he invented a nonexistent president who was always traveling in the States whenever unpopular personnel decisions had to be made. Unfortunately, the Icelandic buyers insist on dealing with the “Boss” face to face. As a solution to his problem, Ravn hires an unemployed actor, Kristoffer (Jens Albinus), to play the part of the Boss for both the staff and the Icelanders.

When asked by an interpreter about the perceived tension in the film between the Danish company and its Icelander counterpart, Mr. von Trier replied coolly: “The fact is that we have a lot of Icelandic people who are buying most of Copenhagen right now. For 400 years Iceland was under the Danish crown. All the Icelandic people hate the Danes in that sense. They have freaked themselves out about the Danes. There is this scar from these 400 years that is rightfully there.”

This is the brand of sociological sang-froid that makes Mr. von Trier’s works almost endearing despite his own bossy arrogance and his dubious stylistic shenanigans in the name of truth and simplicity. Elsewhere in the interview, he is oddly blunt about his own countrymen: “It is quite characteristic that Danes love to hear that they are stupid. Maybe it’s that this is a small country and the people are quite masochistic.”

Another of Mr. von Trier’s saving graces is his sense of women as repositories of intelligence, wisdom and compassion for the often idiotically quixotic men in their midst. Both the manipulative Ravn’s real boss and the deluded ham actor Kristoffer’s bogus boss turn out to be slaves to their fantasies, whereas the three women in both the Danish and Icelandic camps—Lise (Iben Hjejle), Heidi A. (Mia Lyhne) and Mette (Louise Mieritz)—provide the necessary lucidity, perspective and even exposition despite their ostensibly inferior positions.

Also, the mere idea of an actor convincingly impersonating a C.E.O. is inherently and deliciously disrespectful of the sacred capitalistic system. In the end, Mr. von Trier succumbs to a sub-Pirandellan shrug of the shoulders—as if to remind us somewhat needlessly that The Boss of It All is only a movie. And it is not even a hand-held opus with Dogme purist credentials, but rather one that is computer-generated in a new process Mr. von Trier calls Automavision. Yet the one last saving grace of this only marginally entertaining film is its refusal to avail itself of an ironically heroic sentimentality set up by its own narrative trajectory. Mr. von Trier is ultimately too much the cynic and pessimist to permit a false feel-good ending. And for that, at least, I respect him.