Billed as the first comedy from Dogme 95 co-founder Lars von Trier, The Boss of It All is actually the latest mindfuck from the Danish provocateur. There is nothing innocuous about a von Trier project, even one in which the filmmaker himself appears in the opening scene (reflected in the windows of an office building) to placate his audience. "Although you see my reflection, trust me," he coos, "this film won't be worth a moment's reflection." Don't bet on it.
Ravn (Peter Gantzler), who owns a Danish IT firm, screws over his devoted programmers by stealing the patent to their most profitable project. He creates a combative working environment, but can't stand being disliked. So he invents a fictitious head honcho to take blame for his harsh decisions. When he decides to sell the company to an Icelandic buyer who wants to meet the "real" boss, Ravn hires pretentious actor Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) to embody his figurehead, Svend Eckersberg.
There's a great deal of malicious fun to be had when Kristoffer, an actor accustomed to planning his every move in advance, is forced to improvise. Portraying the reviled "boss of it all" is difficult enough, but Ravn failed to provide the very needy actor with a key piece of information: "Svend" has been e-mailing his employees, and creating a very distinctive, personal impression with each one. So Kristoffer is forced to continually readjust his performance, and he begins to question the consequences of his actions.
Throughout this bitterly funny film, von Trier plays with comedic conventions, and the best running gag is Kristoffer's devotion to (fictitious) absurdist playwright Gambini, whose work never delivers what it promises. It's an apt joke for a filmmaker who doesn't want his audience to ever get too comfortable. Here, he does it with an off-putting editing style. It's not quite a jump cut, more like blink cuts: as if you've closed your eyes, and in that split second, the scene has shifted slightly. The disorientation is deliberate.
Well-versed in the subtle and overt forms of cruelty, von Trier doesn't believe in passive cinema, or following preconceived notions of entertainment. Even in his best-known English-language films, Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Dogville (2003), von Trier systematically turns his main characters into sacrificial lambs, and delivers them to the slaughter. He's always the boss of it all. You'll have to pay for your laughter.
At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.