My summer with Lars: An actor's revenge

LvT’s farcical office comedy The Boss of It All (2007) seems to me best interpreted as an allegory about the constant struggle of actor and director—a struggle that has come to structure prevailing accounts of von Trier’s own career.  vT’s reputation as a controlling, even abusive director of actors rivals that of Hitchcock (one of his cinematic mentors); tales of Bjork fleeing the set of Dancer in the Dark in tears, or vague rumors about Nicole Kidman being so traumatized during the filming of Dogville that she refused to reprise her role in Manderlay, have become part of the von Trier mythos.  In Kidman’s case, it seems that her experience on Dogville was exhausting and challenging, but she has never claimed to have been scarred by the experience, and her absence from Manderlay was primarily due to scheduling conflicts than personal ones.  The word on the street is that she is scheduled to appear in von Trier’s upcoming Nymphomaniac.  Nevertheless, vT’s name has become a signifier for the director as tyrant, looking on coldly as he forces his (mostly female) actors to suffer untold abuse. 

In The Boss of It All, Ravn (Peter Gantzler), the deceptive manager of a Danish IT company, convinces his friend, a pretentious stage actor named Kristoffer (Jens Albinus), to pose as the company’s nonexistent boss.  In the role of the boss, Kristoffer thus becomes a scapegoat for the company’s problems and is finally put in the unenviable position of having to fire all of its employees.  Kristoffer and Ravn also butt heads over questions of method: a devotee of a Pirandello-like playwright and theorist named Gambini, Kristoffer voices strong opinions about how his “character” should be interpreted.  It becomes possible, then, to read Ravn and Kristoffer as figures for vT’s persona as manipulative puppet master, constantly at loggerheads with his equally strong-willed actors.  The analogy is helped along by a number of textual and extra-textual clues: Kristoffer is the name of the character Jens Albinus played for von Trier ten years earlier in The Idiots, for instance, and (wouldn’t you know?) the word “boss” in Danish is direktoren.  Kristoffer, who appears to be the boss of it all, is in fact only an actor who must ultimately defer to the real boss of it all, Ravn—the director figure who tries to coach Kristoffer’s every move and becomes frustrated when he goes off-script.  (Meanwhile, von Trier continually interrupts the action with cheeky voice-over narration over God’s-eye shots of the office building, reminding us that he is the real “direktoren for det hele,” or, in the words of one of his characters, “the boss of the boss of it all.”)  The dramatic reversals of the film's final act suggest the momentary triumph of the actor over the director, an escape from his control; though, trapped as all of them remain within vT's own dollhouse-like film-world (one that recalls the worlds of Dogville and Manderlay), escape from a LvT film may not ever be possible. 

Might this be vT’s own sly way of addressing his constant power struggle with actors?  And might it then also be his own roundabout way of deferring to them, of acknowledging their power within his work, even as he insists on his own omnipotence?  (Three of vT’s films have won acting awards at Cannes, which suggests that, if nothing else, he gets good results from his performers.)  As an office farce, The Boss of It All is only middling; as a veiled dramatization of the ties that bind those on either sides of the camera, it’s a clever lark.        

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