Danish provocateur Lars von Trier has never been my favourite film-maker, but his eccentricities are so intriguing that he's possibly my favourite idea of a film-maker. His latest film is a comedy – or rather, the idea of a comedy. Von Trier hovers knowingly over The Boss of It All – and I do mean hovers. He's glimpsed in reflection in the opening shot, riding a crane up the outside of an office building, as he tells us in voice-over what to expect: "a comedy and harmless as such".
Ostensibly Von Trier's least bizarre film, The Boss of It All is a moderately amusing workplace farce, but it increasingly hints at the strategies of a Byzantine mindscrew. A businessman, Ravn (Peter Gantzler), hires actor Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) to play the boss of his IT company at a contract signing with an Icelandic firm. It turns out that Ravn is the head of the company; his modesty, he claims, has led him to invent a permanently absent top dog, the "Boss of It All". But the inept Kristoffer lets himself be seen by Ravn's staff and ends up having to attend meetings with its inner circle of top staffers, the "Six Seniors", who all have different ideas about the Boss's true nature.
What ensues is a sitcom-like patchwork of misunderstandings and coincidences. The dopier Kristoffer is, the more the Six think he's a genius out to manipulate them. One woman (Iben Hjejle) is convinced he's pretending to be gay, so promptly seduces him; while Kristoffer's ex-wife (Sofie Grabol) turns out to be the Icelanders' lawyer. Some gags fall flat, others have a dry conceptual wit. Ravn keeps summoning Kristoffer to meetings on increasingly ludicrous "neutral grounds" (a café, a garden centre, a zoo); the Icelandic boss (Viking-like film-maker Thor Fridrik Fridriksson) fulminates via an interpreter about those accursed Danes; and there's a nice running gag about one woman's fear of the photocopying machine.
Kristoffer wanders through it all clueless, all things to all employees, rather like Peter Sellers' vacant gardener-turned-guru in Being There.
The Boss of It All would seem an unambitious, amiable lark, if not for two things. One is the joylessly knowing commentary interspersed by Von Trier, a man who can smirk even in voice-over. The other is the way that the camera keeps shifting from angle to unlikely angle, for no obvious reason and in rampant violation of the laws of film editing. While the framing twitches in this apoplexy of jump cuts, the actual grain of the image keeps changing too, as does the sound: a single line of dialogue can seem as though it's patched together from recordings using several different microphones.
It turns out – although you have to read the press notes to learn this – that the film was made using a new principle called Automavision, in which a computer runs a programme to determine particular variables: tilt, pan, focal length, aperture et al. The effect, Von Trier claims, is of "inviting chance in from the cold and thus giving the work an idea-less surface free of the force of habit and aesthetics".
With its uncannily detached feel and anaesthetically flat look – perfectly suited to a film about an IT firm – The Boss of It All is certainly idiosyncratic. The theory suits the material too: the story is about abnegating responsibility, ascribing the authorship of your actions to someone else. Ravn can exploit his adoring staff all the better because they think he's reluctantly following the dictates of a merciless Boss. Likewise Von Trier, although he's named as director, claims he's just implementing the camera's decisions; Automavision even gets the film's official cinematography credit.
The premise reminds me of the conceit formerly adopted by British artist Keith Tyson, who used to claim that his creations were executed following the random but precise dictates of an apocryphal "Art Machine". Whether Automavision really "shot" Von Trier's movie, whether it even exists, is matter for conjecture: this is after all a story about bare-faced lying. But its supposed existence puts the film in a very peculiar bracket, making it not so much cinema as conceptual art.
In fact, The Boss of It All has the oddly dead look of those professionally polished but visually characterless pieces that result when gallery artists want their videos to resemble, but not actually be, "proper" films.
After a while, as it happens, the hiccuppy discontinuities created by Automavision become so familiar that you barely notice them.
The Boss of It All is a bizarre creation: Neil LaBute meets Brian Rix, "The Death of the Author" meets The Office. But what a bizarre paradox too: that Von Trier's most experimental film should look like his most mainstream, and that his most audience-friendly film should also be his most recondite dead end.