The blitzkrieg of award season is right around the corner, and with it, we can expect an onslaught of stunt performances designed to wow Academy voters and feature editors (and also viewers?) with their evident degrees of difficulty and demonstrable totality of transformation. With Daniel Day-Lewis having strapped on the Lincoln beard for Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master offering Joaquin Phoenix a chance to return to mainstream good graces after the all-in lived performance of I'm Still Here, it's hard to imagine an experimental Danish documentary siphoning off too much Best Actor attention. But make no mistake: In The Ambassador, Mads Brügger — who, as both featured performer in and auteur of films that seek to capture reality through fiction, is sort of the Euro film-festival equivalent of Sacha Baron Cohen, when Cohen was interesting — gives what has to be one of the riskiest and most committed performances of the year.
In 2010, Brügger won the world-documentary prize at Sundance for his first feature, The Red Chapel, a hidden-camera comedy in which Brügger posed as the impresario of an experimental-theater troupe made up of two Danish-Korean comedians — one of them severely developmentally disabled — in order to smuggle cameras onto a "cultural exchange" trip to Pyongyang without raising the alarms of their North Korean hosts.
The Ambassador, like Chapel, is a document of a lie created in order to tell the truth. It begins with Brügger purchasing a diplomatic title on the black market in order to travel to the Central African Republic in the guise of an ambassador to Liberia. To his title brokers and to his new African associates, Brügger claims his goal is to use his perceived position (and bribes, secretly funded by the Danish Film Institute) to go into business with blood-diamond miners and move the gems out of the country under the cover of diplomatic immunity. Because he needs a business front, Brügger also claims to be building a match factory in the incredibly disadvantaged region — one staffed by Pygmies.
In Chapel, Brügger included footage suggesting that he dropped the act whenever his North Korean hosts couldn't see him. In The Ambassador, he never breaks character. With his wardrobe of linen pants tucked into riding boots, fishing hat, ostentatious cigarette holder and aviator shades, Brügger's conception of the decadent, blithely exploitative Westerner in Africa is like Hunter S. Thompson meets Carl Denham from King Kong: perfect for the figurehead of a film that's part gonzo journalism, part dangerous exhibition of domesticating the unknown by filming it.
It's an open question as to whether Mads's act was transparent to anyone else we see on screen. Often the angle (and shit video quality) of the footage suggests it was captured on a hidden camera, but sometimes the subjects seem to know they're being filmed. We occasionally see the camera being hidden in advance of a meeting, one way the director points out the staging of the undercover act.
The Ambassador bursts out of the gate and then slows into an endurance exercise for Brügger and the viewer: How long will he be able to pull this off? The wrap-up is vague and sudden, and necessarily so: In order for the movie to work, you need to wonder if maybe, at some point, Brügger stopped acting and really became the crooked international asshole he was supposedly just pretending to be. The magic of Brügger's performance is that it earns that suspension of disbelief.