TIFF’s Östlund Retrospective: Involuntary

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This week TIFF will be hosting In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund, a travelling retrospective on the Force Majeure director’s canon of films. Playing from April 9 to 14 at TIFF Bell Lightbox, the series will be highlighting Östlund’s rich and diverse works of which includes two of his award-winning short films and his four features to date. In honour of the series we are taking a look back at Östlund’s body of work.

A young girl stands in front of her class tasked by her teacher to identify the shorter of two lines. Picking what she believes to be the obvious answer, the student is shocked when she is met with a chorus of diverging views. After enduring the same response when asked the question again, the girl decides to select the popular consensus on her third attempt…despite not agreeing with it deep down. What the girl does not realize is that she is part of a social experiment on peer pressure. The class was instructed by the teacher to support the wrong answer until the girl conformed.

It is this exercise in conformity that Ruben Östlund’s sophomore film, Involuntary, establishes its narrative around. Tightly woven in a darkly comedic ball of yarn, Östlund’s film navigates through five distinct stories. In each tale, characters are placed into difficult circumstances which test their values and mental fortitude in the face of increasing outside pressures. However, Östlund is testing the resolve of the audience as well. By placing the characters within particular predicaments, Involuntary is constantly casting a light on the viewer’s hypocrisies. Östlund frequently structures the film in such a way that the audience collectively condemns an action one minute, while forgiving a similar action the next.

The ability to not only comply with, but also construct justifications for, an action that completely goes against one’s beliefs is prevalent in every crevice of the film. The fear of ostracism hangs in the are like thick smoke from a wildfire. In one story a school teacher witnesses a fellow teacher use physical punishment to discipline a troublemaking student. Struggling with how to process this, and reluctant to intervene, the teacher is stunned that her colleagues, especially the violent individual in questions, seem to have a completely different view regarding the disciplinary action. Another vignette follows a group of longtime friends enjoying a drunken “guys weekend” away. Their jovial excursion hits a sour note when a prank results in one of the men being sexually assaulted. Despite being traumatized by the incident, and calling his wife in a distraught state to pick him up, the man refuses to leave the rest of his pals.

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Continuing the theme of characters in denial of the situations they find themselves in, Östlund includes an amusing sequence involving a patriarch getting hit with a firecracker during his wife’s birthday celebrations. Refusing to venture the hospital to attend to the wounds, the audience is forced to watch as the man’s health begins to decline. Conversely, an actress becomes trapped on a coach bus when the driver refuses to continue the journey until the culprit of a broken curtain rod – which she accidentally destroyed while in the bathroom – comes forward. What initially seems like idle threats becomes a battle of wills as the bus driver’s principles threaten to outlast the woman’s patience.

The most disturbing narrative arc in the film involves two teenage girls who spend their free time practicing their “sexy poses” for their webcam and drunkenly harassing older men on public transit. The pair find themselves in a dangerous predicament when their drunken escapades results in one of the girls being passed around like a Raggedy Anne doll, while unconscious, by a bunch of cellphone carrying strangers. It is in this section where Östlund’s commentary about society’s lack of desire to get involved even in dire circumstances hits home the most. In a perverse way, the viewer’s stark reaction to this particular arc also speaks volumes to the sliding scale of moral triggers that currently exist in the world.

Östlund knows that the viewer will gasp in horror at the sight of an older gentleman, whose intentions are unknown, picking up a drunken young girl off the ground more than they would at the acrobatic antics of a naked man – who actually committed a sexual assault on another man. By making the latter more comical, Östlund further exposes the hypocrisy of the viewer. He shows how easily the judgmental eye can be manipulated. Similar to Östlund’s fascination with filling certain frames with body parts rather than the full individual – some scenes only feature character’s feet, while in other scenes find the camera planted on a messy table while parts of an individual loading a dishwasher can be seen on the edges of the screen – there is a layer of disconnect that is prominent in the film. Involuntary is the type of film that sits with the viewer long after it is finished. Through its dark humour, Ruben Östlund holds a mirror up to our conformist habits and dares us not to look at our reflection. He knows we will look though, for we cannot resist that which is sadly in our nature.

Screens
Saturday, April 11, 6:30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox