Early Retrospective Finds Swedish Director Ruben Östlund on the Verge of a Great Career

Ruben Östlund
Ruben Östlund
Photo by Johan Bergmark

A canny portrait of marital catastrophe that's equal measures Raymond Carver bitter quietude and late Ingmar Bergman striptease, Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure surprised grown-up moviegoers, starved for mature meat ages after such psychodramatic pressure cookers were common in arthouse theaters. But it wasn't a terrible stunner for Swedes and dedicated festival patrons, for whom Östlund has been a burgeoning force ten years running, since his first feature The Guitar Mongoloid (2004).

It may be early to mount a retro for the man — he's 40 — but the three features and the clutch of shorts on view at Cinefamily all deserve better exposure than they've gotten (which includes showcase spots at Cannes and the New York Film Festival). Until this year, Östlund has not been a terribly marketable commodity — however subtle, Majeure represents a leap ahead toward commercial orthodoxy. It does employ, after all, ordinary shot-countershot close-ups. Look to Mongoloid, that first impish pseudo-doc from 2004, for Östlund's initial aesthetic assault: distant, enigmatic, fragmented, a deadeyed steeliness in the tradition of Michael Haneke, Tsai Ming-liang and Ulrich Seidl. The Guitar Mongoloid is a quilt of moments, set-pieces and voyeuristic opportunities, building to no specific thematic idea: a Down's Syndrome boy busks on the streets of Stockholm, an old woman with OCD struggles with leaving her front door, various mobs of street punks occupy themselves performing pointless pranks and crimes, lovers dally and banter in private, drunken men get into scuffles and do stupid things.

Some of the "characters" (real people, playing out Östlund's scenarios) reoccur, particularly the young guitarist and his enthusiastically child-like dad, and some swatches of behavior interconnect. But some do not – the movie's like a genial if vice-obsessed Richard Scarry drawing of Stockholm, assembled from unblinking single shots that last for minutes and in which nothing at all could happen or chaos could erupt.

Östlund's weft got tighter and richer with Involuntary (2008), a similarly shot and constructed social exploration that weaves together five unrelated strands: a posh family celebration is disrupted when the patriarch catches a fireworks explosion in the eye; a middle-school teacher becomes ostracized when she objects to a colleague beating a student; a tour bus gets becomes waylaid when the emotionally unstable driver insists someone confess to a minor vandalism; two party-hearty teenage girls get in trouble during a night of drinking, and a mancation in a chalet goes awry when drunken faux-homo gags go too far. Östlund's cool, unemphatic compositions are uniformly beautiful, allowing your eye to edit the unpredictable action on its own, as the pulses of narrative avoid clearcut thematic takeaway. Involuntary doesn't simplify its stories into a single point of view or idea; rather, Östlund is merely visiting these high-pressure moments in which Swedish culture frays, melts down, and betrays its ultra-civilized idea of itself.

The lightning-quick thumbnail performances are, as always with Östlund, impeccable and three-dimensional. His masterpiece-so-far, Play (2011), narrows its focus much further, opening in a mall, where two white boys get accosted by a group of five older black boys – "immigrants," they're referred to as later, but they may well be homegrown — who in short order perform a you-stole-from-my-brother role-playing scam and walk away with one of the white kids' phones. Next, the little fun-loving mobsters stalk another trio of younger out-of-town kids, and essentially terrorize-slash-cajole them with the same scam, taking them as hostages on an unbearably tense, day-long bullying jaunt across the city that evokes a messy brawl of conflicting ideas about race, justice, European politesse, totalitarian social patterns of control and collaboration, and even Stockholm syndrome trauma.

Based on a real Swedish petty crime wave, Play troubles the waters of any smugly held view, liberal or conservative, about how society should regard and handle its own rogue elements, a dilemma Östlund obviously thinks is vital in countries like Sweden that are over-comfortable with their own homogenous reasonableness. (His characters cannot help moralizing to each other like scolding parents.) Still, his camera strategy remains fascinating and elusive, always partially obscuring distant action with foreground reality, and patiently letting incidents play out in breath-holding takes that never look away. It's the rare contemporary film that's as majestically and gruelingly rigorous in its form as in its thematic interrogations.

Films like Östlund's that hyperanalyze social contradictions and don't pretend to offer easy solutions are not common, which makes the comparatively conventional and intimate Force Majeure all the stranger — either an outlier in Östlund's filmography, or a sign of the director abandoning his dazzling mysteriousness for a more populist approach. Let's hope for the former; besides Roy Andersson, Östlund may be the only Swedish filmmaker worth following at the moment, and we need another Lasse Hallstrom like we need a hole in our heads.

IN CASE OF NO EMERGENCY: THE FILMS OF RUBEN OSTLUND | Cinefamily | Jan. 9-24 | cinefamily.org


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