The Guitar Mongoloid1

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.

Filmed over a period of four years on a shoestring budget, Ruben Östlund’s debut film offers a raw glimpse into many of the themes that would become staples in the director’s body of work. Embracing more of a free form style in comparison to his later works, The Guitar Mongoloid follows the same structure as his follow-up film, Involuntary, but without the in-depth focus in its narrative. Östlund offers lucid observations about contemporary Swedish life through the eyes of its disadvantage, and at times problematic, citizens.

The audience’s guide through this landscape is a nomadic young teenage busker Erik (Erik Rutström), who enjoys disrupting homeowners’ satellite signals when not strumming on his guitar. Erik spends his free time with another busker in his late twenties, whose lack of emotional maturity is hindering him from truly taking his relationship with his girlfriend to the next level. Östlund’s version of Gothenberg, Sweden is also filled with a woman with a obsessive compulsive disorder, a gang of teens who are compelled to destroy every bicycle they encounter, two friends getting drunk in a room, and a perpetually blurred man who finds himself in a rather tense situation.

It is in the vignette involving the blurred man and a game of Russian roulette where Ruben Östlund’s brand of absurdist dark comedy truly shines. The sequence serves as an example of how delightfully skewed the director’s “slice of everyday life” style of filmmaking can be. For those familiar with Östlund’s later films, The Guitar Mongoloid may not be a revelation, but rather a charming reminder of things to come. Whether it is the fixed placement of the camera or the way in which he captures the destructive nature of youth, many of Östlund’s usual beats are on display.

Frequently using public transit as a motif to force individuals, usually everyday civilians, to confront aspect of life that they would rather ignore, Östlund continually finds rich material in confined spaces. Whether it is the woman with OCD reaching out to touch the hair of a teenager in this film, the drunken teen girls teasing a man on the train in Involuntary, passengers panicking as their bus gets too close to the edge in Force Majeure, or a group of black boys getting beat up at the back of a bus by the relatives of a kid they stole from in Play, Östlund has a knack for making the public sphere feel tense and uncomfortable.

Similar to many of the films in Östlund’s canon, The Guitar Mongoloid provides a darkly comedic, and at times awkward, observation of life in Sweden. His commentary on relationships, class system, the male ego, and violence are not as polished as his other works. However, there is still plenty to enjoy here. As if getting access to Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbook years before he constructs his masterpiece, The Guitar Mongoloid provides the necessary road map needed to understanding the true artist that Ruben Östlund eventually becomes.

Sunday, April 12, 6:30 PM, TIFF Bell Ligthtbox


    1. I would say Force Majeure, partly because that was my first feature film experience with Östlund (I had actually seen the short Incident by a Bank a year or so ago, but did not make the connection until I revisited the film again recently). However, I really enjoyed the other films in his canon as well, so it is tough to say how I would rank them overall.

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