Ruben Östlund’s quirky Involuntary juxtaposes five snapshots of silly season in contemporary Sweden, challenging the audience to create their own connections.
Power of One by Laura Bennett
Opening with a nocturnal dash through the neon-lit streets of urban Gothenburg, it doesn’t take long for the playful and unconventional nature of Involuntary to become apparent. Exploring the theme of individual free will versus group dynamics the film criss-crosses amid a mosaic of five otherwise unconnected stories. The first begins with a family birthday party that ultimately ends in tragedy with an aborted fireworks display. Then, among a cast of otherwise unknown and often even uninitiated actors, the well-known Swedish star Maria Lundqvist takes a coach trip across the country only to be stranded halfway when the recently divorced jobs-worth coach driver takes drastic action in response to some anonymous damage caused illicitly in the bus toilet.
Next, two precocious young stereotypically-blonde Swedish beauties pose lustily for each other and for the camera, their teenage rebellion culminating in a drunken night. One of the comatosed girls is abandoned by her friends only to be driven home by a stranger to face her mother’s wrath the following morning. Fourthly, an ambitious and idealistic young teacher confronts the more jaded, heavy-handed teaching methods of her fellow staff members. And last but not least, a group of lads horsing around on a weekend away when one oversteps the mark by playing an inappropriate prank on one of his friends. In each of the stories the character’s moment of choice is fleeting. Free will is open to them but they choose not to take it when it is briefly presented and then it is too late, the moment has passed and they are forced to confront the consequences.
Forming the pivotal point in Involuntary, and resuming the film as a whole, is a scene from the fourth story set in the school classroom. A young girl is sent outside by the teacher while her classmates are let in on the joke. She returns and is presented with an image of two lines of differing length and asked to choose the longest. On finding that those around her disagree with her choice on the first two occasions, on the third attempt she deliberately chooses the wrong line. Having been inspired by a real-life situation in his mother’s school, Östlund played the trick for real on the little girl, filming it with several girls to get the right response; six out of the ten girls consciously chose the wrong line in response to their classmates’ apparent certainty. This scene, he says “encapsulates the notion that a group can exercise irresistible power over a single individual, forced to adapt so as to be integrated.”
Having cut his teeth makes films about skiing in the late 90s, Östlund’s technique certainly provides an unusual transfer into more main-stream films; in skiing films the longer the take the better, in order to show off the skier’s uninterrupted prowess. In Involuntary, his second film, this technique provides both a warts and all real-life, and a lazy real-time, feel by including even the awkward silences between the characters as they converse in a naturalistic documentary style. Keen to frustrate the audience and make them work as hard as possible, Östlund certainly doesn’t serve his smörgåsbord on a plate. Constantly playing with camera angles, sometimes the actors are half out of shot, seen from behind, reflected into a window or just from the ankle down. This challenge is concerned with maintaining audience concentration as a director, “disorientation leads the viewer to seek clarity….it’s up to you to interpret the scene using your own moral values.”
Part of a young group of Swedish directors who trained together at the Gothenburg film school Östlund expects his audience to work hard and Involuntary certainly lacks any kind of traditional plot. Happily there is plenty of reward for those prepared to get to grips with this subtle Scandinavian slow-burner.
Involuntary is released in the UK on October 29th 2010.