Released to acclaim in Sweden in 2008, the year when it was also screened at Cannes and at the London Film Festival, Involuntary is finally being released in the UK. International distribution is rarely straightforward and I can only guess that the recent success of Swedish crime fiction in print and on film and television is a factor in encouraging Trinity to take a punt on this film due out on October 29. Perhaps another less obvious factor in contemporary UK interest in Swedish society is the Cameron government’s obsession with what ministers insist on calling the ‘Swedish model’ (referring unintentionally to a rather older stereotype of ‘sexy Swedes’) of social policies.
Involuntary is co-written and directed by Ruben Östlund. It’s his second fiction feature and the Press Notes reveal that he began by making ‘radical’ winter sports films in the 1990s before attending the new film school at Göteborg. He is now a partner in his own production company with his co-writer Erik Hemmendorff. Involuntary has picked up several prizes in Europe and North America and Östlund is being compared to directors like Michael Haneke and Todd Solonz. I’m not a big fan of either of those cinephile directors, although I respect the quality of their work. I’m not sure that Involuntary invokes them either. At first, I found it a hard film to watch but gradually I became hooked and by the end quite fascinated.
The film has little in the way of detailed plotting that you might find in crime fiction, yet in its observation of social mores it offers quite a detailed study of ordinary lives that ties in with some of the nuances that you might pick up from Nordic crime novels. In doing so it offers a gentle satire on Swedish social life, but I suspect that virtually everything that happens will be familiarto audiences in most European countries (certainly in the UK). It comprises a number of short scenes involving five different sets of characters (who don’t appear to be connected). Across the whole film, five parallel narratives have moments of drama but no real resolution as such. Scenes tend to be constructed around a single long take and many are introduced via a range of distancing devices, so the film opens with shots from the knee down of the legs of guests arriving at a party. In other scenes, doorways, windows or mirrors might show a character listening to someone we can’t see inside the room. In the most extreme case, a blurred and distorted image eventually reveals itself as a reflection. In addition some scenes are composed in extreme long shots so that actions are impossible to view in detail (but dialogue is still discernible). At other times we can see only the back of the speaker’s head. There is a good range of invention in these shots and they work in different ways to prompt the audience to think about watching or eavesdropping (i.e. ‘voyeurism’), but also about how social interaction takes place and how we are all likely to react in given social situations. (Each individual scene is only a few minutes at most: I’ve seen them described as ‘vignettes’ but that’s not accurate, the editing separates them out, but the five ‘stories’ are quite linear and continuous over the length of the film except for a couple of flashbacks.)
Several reviews that I’ve read suggest quite glibly that the film is about ‘peer pressure’. Perhaps that is what the title (it seems to be the same in Swedish) is meant to convey. It is also described as a ‘tragic comedy’ or a ‘comic tragedy’. There are certainly one or two comic moments, but for me the fascination is about identifying the social dynamics of each situation and thinking about how individuals behave in certain group situations. There is quite a difference, I think, between a 60 year-old man hosting a party who has an accident but refuses to leave his guests to receive treatment and a young liberal teacher trying to do the right thing morally and professionally in a rather conservative school environment. The other situations involve embarrassing/provocative sexual behaviour amongst a group of male friends, a pair of drunk young teenage girls and their friends and an older woman who is a well-known actress (played by the only major actor in the cast) on a bus trip involving a dispute over damage to the bus. The school and the bus service are of course institutional spaces whereas the other three situations are more purely ‘personal’.
In various interviews Östlund tells us that he is not interested in “Anglo-Saxon dramaturgy” by which he means a conventional Hollywood narrative. He doesn’t want to make films that only reference other films and never deal with ‘ordinary/real’ people. Instead he wants to pick up on the energy of the short YouTube films that excite so much attention. I’m fine with that, but there are, of course plenty of earlier films and filmmaking styles that he is either drawing on unconsciously or which audiences will themselves reference. This is one of the functions of the shooting and editing style he utilises (scenes often stop before they get to an expected high-point in the drama and then fade to black). He wants us to reflect on what’s happening and I found myself thinking at different times about Godard (in particular Weekend with its similar structure and scenes in long shot) and various Direct Cinema directors but especially Frederick Wiseman and his two High School films (most obviously in the school sequences).
I can think of people I know who would find this film extremely interesting – and others who might be completely turned off. The film will divide audiences but those who like it will do so very much. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Here’s the UK trailer:
Link on Cineuropa