It’s no doubt hard to imagine a time when Swedish cinema wasn’t just about sadists and the broken individuals that pursue them. Sure enough there is a Swedish film industry apart from all things criminal and in the shadow of all this attention is a really rather brilliant film called De Ofrivilliga (or Involuntary to give it’s English title) that’s about to get a UK release. Five separate stories interwoven across and hour and forty minutes which, to quote the director Ruben Östlund, all build on the question of ‘how is the individual affected by the herd mentality.’
Which is to say, how far would the individual go to not lose face in front of their peers? The conceit is simple, but the realisation nuanced, exploring a number of situations which not being universal are none the less recognisable in an abstract sense. The patriarch of the family gathering, refusing to admit the need for medical attention after taking a firework right in the eye; the tweenage girls leaning on a young man, a complete stranger, to buy them alcohol; the teacher ostracised in the staff room for speaking out against the transgressions of a colleague; the recognised actress who can’t admit to having broken a coach toilet; the ‘lad’ who can’t reconcile his friends for having gone just too far. Each scenario is a unique approach to the same question, and watching the subject of each quietly writhe in subjugation is agonising yet perfectly recognisable. The fact that the film is shot in agonisingly long takes, consistently in extreme long-shot, or framed in such a manner as to exclude the majority of the action, really locks the viewer into every excruciating moment of discomfort.
Some might take this as a springboard to discussing how the pangs of individual concern throw a spotlight on the enshrined national responsibility towards social welfare, but this isn’t Wallander and all Swedish cinema is not just about the collapse of the Swedish Model. Not to underplay or under-read the film either, it’s just that Östlund’s filmography is far from conventional, and the stylistic influences he brings to bear aren’t so much Bergman and Sjöström, but by his own admission draw more from Youtube and extreme sports filmmaking. This is not to be glib or contrary either, as there’s a clear line of influence stretching right back to Östlund’s first break making off-piste skiing films.
The kind of fare in question is the sort you used to find on expensive vhs tapes, sold from behind the counter in skate and ski shops, and Östlund made a name for himself in the mid-nineties. His approach was marked by eschewing the fast cut, slow-motion-heavy ‘white powder porn’ of most skiing films, and instead drawing on the unbroken aesthetic of skating and snowboarding videos. To borrow a well-worn truism from introductory film courses everywhere: Every Cut Is A Lie, but especially so in stunt driven extreme sports. With the cameramen perched on distant peaks, tele-photo lenses gazing across the valley, you don’t get any second chances and come missed jumps, broken bones, or even avalanches, whatever happens you keep on rolling. The effect is terrifying in it’s own right, and set to an upbeat soundtrack of mid-nineties Swedish indie-rock, the complete package is part travelogue, part music video, and bizarrely compelling irrespective of your prior interest in skiing.
His love of filmmaking came to supersede his interest in the subject, and his outsider filmography was his ticket to three years at the School of Photography at the University of Gothenberg. His approach persisted even in his graduate work, and in his 2002 documentary Familj Igen, in which Östlund reunited his divorced parents of 23 years, the 59 minutes of the film is broken by a mere 21 cuts. By the time he moved onto his first feature film the application of the extended take becomes a dangerously effective device in fudging the lines between fact and fiction. The provocatively titled Gitarrmongot [literally The Guitar Mongoloid, but you can replace Mongoloid with Spastic or any other equally un-PC playground barb] takes an even more disparate collection of characters and follows them as they go about their lives in Gothenburg. Some of it’s staged, some of it’s not. Some characters have their faces blurred out in a way which suggests they refused to sign an image-release form. Unless told otherwise you could easily mistake it for an open form documentary, much like the Finnish Living Room of the Nation. It’s not, but then you can’t say it’s a wholly fictional film either.
This merry melding of categories and expectations, a willingness to simply mess around with form is perhaps why I’m growing to like Östlund so much. I’ve not had a chance to see his latest short film Incident by a Bank, but it’s technical conceit alone is enough to really make me want to see it. A failed bank robbery, shot in high resolution digital (4K in case you care) in a single extreme long-shot take across a public square, with the narrative reconstructed by focusing the frame on specific actions within the fixed shot. Editing by means of pan and scan, if you will. Maybe I’m just curious out of a purely technical aspect, but a Gold Bear at the Berlin film festival gives me hope that it’s more than just a gimmick.
The shower of critical accolades and festival awards has also given Östlund enough of a platform to be technically experimental, and to stand by it. In a bizarrely informal breakfast programme interview on Swedish television Östlund was quietly taken to task for his ideology in approaching film. Gently pilloried for being internationally lauded but still overlooked by the Swedish Guldbagge film awards, Östlund gladly took the Swedish establishment to task for shunning non-conventional cinema. When asked what his main creative influences were he readily cites Youtube as his first port of call: an infinite sourcebook of staged and un-staged human emotion, both in terms of the viewer and the viewed. Allowed to cite a specific film Östlund asks the show to screen the clip Pygme Jerboa from Youtube, showing a kangaroo mouse filmed by it’s doting owner. To quote Östlund himself: ‘In terms of vitality there isn’t a scene in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo which can even measure with this clip.’ This isn’t said with the straightest of faces, but Östlund remains none the less earnest in highlighting how dead he feels the Swedish film establishment is.
When he says that his next film (called Play and currently in production) is primarily inspired by the Youtube film The Battle at Kruger you have to take him on his word, albeit with a pinch of salt of course. He’s no ‘Enfant Terrible’ but like his formal and aesthetic forebear Lars von Trier, you can’t take Östlund on his every word. There’s a humour and a openness in his approach to filmmaking, and goodness knows that’s something Swedish film is calling out for. A young Swedish director to get excited about is a very rare thing indeed, and hopefully there’s more formally interesting stuff to come.
If Involuntary is screening anywhere near you then you’d be well advised to seek it out.
Involuntary has it’s UK release on the 29th of October, and will be screening as such:
In London at the Apollo West End, the Odeon Panton Street and at the French Institute’s CinéLumière
Outside London at Zeffirellis (Amberside), The Filmhouse (Edinburgh), The National Media Museum (Bradford), and the Chichester Cinema at New Park.
[PS: If you’re at all curious about the film, do yourself a favour and skip the trailer and just watch this short film instead. It’s an obvious precursor in exactly the same vein as Involuntary but without giving the film itself away. It’s also a cracking short film in its own right.]