When a friend asked me to review a film as a favour, I (as most people would have) said yes. His way of convincing me was “there are two good-looking Swedish girls in”. What my friend didn’t tell me was that the film was rather low budget and had five story lines that didn’t overlap at all.
The film in question is a Swedish film called Involuntary, written and directed by Ruben Ӧstlund. It’s a tragic comedy based on human group behaviour or, to put it simply, peer pressure. The film consists of five separate story lines, each showing a situation that most people can relate to or have experienced. There’s the story of a grumpy old man refusing healthcare; a bitchy actress who lets a five year old kid take the fall for an action she committed; two teenage girls who dress provocatively and drink too much (a critique on the MTV culture we live in); five grown-up men who drink too much and “experiment”; and finally, a story of a teacher who speaks up to prevent child abuse and is ostracised by her colleagues. Unlike cult classics like Pulp Fiction or Amores Perros there is no overlap between the story lines, each one stands on its own to make a statement about group pressures.
The film draws you in by being so relatable and through Ӧstlund’s use of subtle directing techniques. His unique directing style is evident straight away as he challenges both himself and the audience to interact with and respond to the film. You are drawn in by his choice of keeping some characters out of shot, allowing you to hear them but never see their faces, instead focusing on the reaction shots of the main characters. This technique is highly effective at making the viewer feel more involved.
Watching the film I felt as though I could draw parallels between myself and some characters, making me wonder how differently I act when I want to impress a friend or not let someone down. Involuntary will have you stuck to your seat, and then leave you questioning your actions and friends. Don’t expect a high budget film with a twist at the end, but do expect to have your beliefs challenged.
I spoke to Ruben Ӧstlund about his directorial choices and future work:
Where do you draw your inspiration?
The concept is a thematic film about group behaviour. I think this is something very fundamental about being a human being, that we are herd animals. I made my first feature, Gitarrmongot [literally: The Guitar Mongoloid] about being individuals that don’t pay attention to the group, and while I was making it I got very interested in the complete opposite, about how the group influences the way you behave. All the five situations in Involuntary come from situations from my life or other people in my life.
The concept is a thematic film about group behaviour. I think this is something very fundamental about being a human being, that we are herd animals
You seem to have a very unique directing style through using long takes from a stationary camera, is there a reason for this style?
From the beginning I needed limitations from which I could draw creative energy and one limitation is to have a fixed camera. With this, the scene could take place in front of the camera or not, so I have to make decisions that allow the scene to work. In the beginning, I used the fixed camera as a method by which I could make the scene’s focus 100% in front of the camera, instead of taking ten different angles in the same scene. When you are on set, it takes so much time and effort to move the cameras around that you can’t fully focus on what is actually going on in the scene.
Why do you keep people’s heads and bodies out of shot?
I am very interested in the real time aspect that works in film. There are few other art forms where the real time aspect is as obvious as it is in film. In shots where people are off the screen or you can’t see the head, what I’m aiming for is to activate the audience, making them use their brains to figure out what is going on. The easiest way to do that is to make something happen off the screen so the audience have to work it out.
Which story line is your favourite?
I like all of them and I think all of them are very important; I wanted all the groups to be very different. A personal favourite may be the storyline on the bus, where the actor breaks a curtain, and the driver refuses to move any further until whoever did it confesses. It’s a classic situation where you have a few seconds where you can say, “Oh, I’m sorry – it was me,” but if you miss that,. it becomes harder and harder to confess.
I think the situation is very universal as humans are so afraid of losing face in front of each other, and there are many cases in history where people are more afraid of losing face than actually dying.
An inspiration for this comes from a famous Swedish adventurer called S.A. Andrée, who, in the 1800s, decided to fly by hot air balloon to the North Pole. Of course, when you look at that even today, you would think that’s totally crazy and everyone on the expedition died. But as you read his diaries from the time you find out that even he thought it was doomed to failure but the social implications of giving up once he started were so great that he still hopped in the balloon, knowing the probable consequences.
You started off directing skiing films and then went to film school, but how would you advise getting into directing?
I think the background with skiing was very important for me, because what lots of people who want to get into the film industry is for the red carpet and all the glamour. When filming skiing, I was a fanatic skier so I was pointing the camera towards something I was interested in. I think this is the best way to get into the industry because other people decide that they want to be in the industry and then have to choose what to point the camera at. If you know what you are interested in, then that is a good start - point the camera in that direction.
Are there any plans to do English language films?
Maybe. We are working with a company called Third and one of their directors, Duane Hopkins and it might be that way in the future if we can get some money from the British Film Institute.