Brinksmanship: The Films of Ruben Östlund

There’s a traveling retrospective of Ruben Östlund’s work going around; it was in New York earlier this year, and lands at TIFF in Toronto starting tomorrow. While four films is a bit light for a retro, the Swedish director does have a definite perspective, and seems on the verge of something. The same words keep cropping up to describe Östlund’s films: unsettling, provocative, audacious, perceptive. And the critics aren’t wrong. This guy likes pushing your buttons. Hard. He knows where they are and he goes after them with slow determination. So with his static camera and glacial skewering of public mores is Östlund a sadist or a satirist? You say tomahto, I say let’s make some soup after the jump.

Ruben Östlund started out directing skiing films in the nineties. That documentary eye served him well as he turned to making narrative features in the early 2000s. His first feature, The Guitar Mongoloid (2004), is a sort of edgy plotless Swedish Slacker (1991), a series of vignettes in a fictional city following random outsiders and lonely people, their lives occasionally punctuated by random acts of violence. Each scene unfolds from a fixed camera, straining the viewer’s patience, but granting a matter-of-fact authority to whatever weirdness happens next. His second feature, Involuntary (2008), fares a little better. It’s still a weave of disparate narratives, but there are threads that develop this time around at least. A wealthy Swedish family’s celebrations are derailed when a firework explodes in the grandfather’s face, damaging his eye. Two teen girls get into trouble drinking at a party. A woman vandalizes the bus she’s traveling on, then is held hostage by her silence when the bus driver confronts the passengers looking for the culprit. A teacher is ostracized for having the temerity to challenge a fellow teacher beating a student. And a group of drunken young men’s pseudo-gay gags at a chalet spin out of control.

There isn’t a lot to unite these first features except for a concern with public and private faces, and our inability to live up to our civilized ideals. They sound pretty dour in describing them, but Östlund approaches his films with a sort of withering absurdist humour. That comedy only comes through in a distant way; Östlund’s humour is wry and brittle, a freeze-dried late period Woody Allen. His more recent films punch higher and harder, with evident success.

Play (2011) is loosely based on true events in Sweden concerning a group of black teens and pre-teens that bullied kids into giving up their stuff, while almost never resorting to violence. The actual events went on for over two years and detail over forty separate incidents. In his film, Östlund gives us two young Swedish boys and their Asian pal, following them as they are confronted and coerced over the course of a really horrible day. It begins at the mall, when they’re approached by a pair of young black kids who accuse them of having a stolen iPhone. This precipitates an argument and the need to settle the matter, as the blacks bring in their accomplices to verify the cracks on the phone and whether it was stolen from someone’s brother. The young Swedes have no idea how to react in this situation, and soon find themselves barely willing hostages, hoping to appease their accusers and be left alone. The blacks use a variety of techniques to keep the others in their thrall, including a good cop/bad cop routine, and dragging the kids all over the city to isolate them. It’s all really uncomfortable stuff, and Östlund is relentless at letting it methodically unfold. The black kids are immigrants, but don’t appear to be all that badly off. They’re outsiders and they resent what their white Swedish peers possess. The film presents them as ruthless and amoral in their pursuit of stuff (phones, clothes, money) as a remedy to their predicament. (One of the black kids opts to quit well into the day’s hijinks when he feels it’s gone too far; the others beat him and leave him on a bus.) Adults are either oblivious or refuse to get involved, or worse, sympathize with the criminals as misunderstood immigrants. In other words, it’s a big political bomb Östlund is quite happy to set off in your face. Again he relies on long takes and lingering shots from far away to capture much of the damage as it’s inflicted, making the film rigorously non-judgmental. Indeed, if anyone is to blame, it seems Östlund is most inclined to lay the responsibility at the door of an overly permissive liberal society. It’s both fascinating and tedious, without much variation as the incidents pile on, but it sure makes one uncomfortable.

Östlund’s provocations have reached their near-term peak with Force Majeure (2014), winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes last year and Sweden’s entry in the Foreign Oscars. In many ways it’s his most traditional film, centred on a domestic drama and actually cutting his shots up, on occasion. The title’s taken from the legal term where a powerful, accidental force intervenes, thereby removing a contractual obligation. And boy, that’s on the money for this one. Tomas and Ebba take their young children on a ski vacation for a family getaway, and to get their marriage back on track. A bit of a workaholic, Tomas has a hard time ditching his phone, even on vacation. Their attempted idyll has a quiet tension that boils over when an avalanche nearly engulfs them during a spectacular outdoor lunch. One moment, they’re together on the terrace with other skiers, all happily chowing down in the brisk mountain air. The resort has been setting off small explosions for controlled avalanches for awhile (the shots of the mountainous slopes as dynamite pops in the night air have their own sinister undertone) and off goes another one, but the snowy cascade is headed right toward the chalet. At first people are bemused, taking pictures, and Tomas assures them it’s safe as he captures the moment on his phone. The next a rumbling cloud of white is enveloping the deck, and everyone freaks out. Tomas panics, blindly running away, while Ebba gathers her daughter and son to her, crouching under the table. It’s a terrifying moment, and then it’s over, just a rush of snowy mist as the actual avalanche has stopped well short of the resort. Tomas wanders back and pretends that nothing untoward has happened, and the family eats their lunch in stunned silence. But Ebba can’t let it go. His abandonment rocks her to her core, and she keeps bringing it up in awkward social situations. For his part, Tomas refuses to even acknowledge he left them, simply stating he remembers the event differently than she does. It’s peculiar and maddening and it drives the couple ever further apart. Östlund uses much of the film as an interrogation of how men rely on their authority as inherently unassailable, while slowly building Ebba’s own underlying hysteria. As with Play, there are plenty of uncomfortable questions about how people behave, both under duress and when their own values are questioned. The battle of the sexes gets plenty of time in the sun, and while Tomas comes off the worst by far, an odd coda casts Ebba’s emotionality in a negative light, too.

The film’s superbly acted, with Johannes Bah Kuhnke as the unsympathetic Tomas and Lisa Loven Kongsli as the overstretched Ebba. The children are entirely believable, terrified that their parents are about to divorce. And Game of Thrones‘ Kristofer Hivju is wonderful as Tomas’s dubious but supportive friend. It’s also beautifully shot, in spite of those Östlund meandering long takes. Whether the emotional wringer is worth it in the end is hard to say. As with all his films, Östlund asks more questions than he answers, and his single-minded technique makes even the most dramatic moments distant and abstract. Still, if you want a conversation piece, something provocative to pick apart with friends over drinks, you won’t do better than these. Just know the answers might hurt a little. And the journey’s half the fun?

In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund runs at TIFF at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto from Thursday, April 9th. For more info and tickets, see here.

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