Phil on Film Index

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Review - Involuntary (De ofrivilliga)

Involuntary is a film that tells multiple stories, but they are all united by a common theme. Director Ruben Östlund wants to use his film to explore peer pressure, the complex nature of group dynamics, and the difficulties involved in taking a stand when all of those around you are looking the other way. It's an unsettling film that depicts its characters – or, to be more accurate, subjects – as timid herd animals too scared of rocking the boat to take decisive actions. The scenarios Östlund has dreamed up involve people of various ages and social groups, all of whom struggle similarly with awkward situations, and the director follows them in a detached, clinical manner, observing them as they face the consequences of their inaction.

The director throws us off balance right from the start with his disorienting camerawork. One minute he places his camera at floor level, only showing us the feet of people arriving at a party, and then he frames a shot with characters half-obscured by a doorway or standing just out of the frame. He sometimes places us in uncomfortably close proximity to the action, but other times he'll keep us at arm's length, and when an accident befalls Villmar (Villmar Björkman) in the first of his five narrative strands, it occurs in darkness and at a distance that leaves us straining to see what exactly has happened. It's an aesthetic that lies somewhere between Roy Andersson and Michael Haneke, and every scene unfolds in a single take in front of Östlund's fixed camera, with the director displaying an effective sense of composition and some excellent timing as he lingers on moments of embarrassed silence.

I was glad that he also resisted the temptation to overlap his disparate narrative strands, instead letting them each stand alone and cutting between them, although some are inevitably weaker than others. I was never particularly taken with the story I outlined above, in which a man injured at his birthday party refuses treatment and insists that the party should carry on as normal. The other segment I failed to really connect with involved a group of male friends on a weekend away whose drunken horseplay eventually segues into some unwarranted sexual advances. I'm not sure why these two stories felt weaker than the rest, but they both seemed to lack the dramatic pull of the other three.

The other three do compensate for that failing, though, and Östlund produces some terrific, intense individual sequences. A scene in which flirty schoolgirls Linnea and Sara (Linnea Cart-Lamy and Sara Eriksson) playfully tease a man on the train reminded me of Haneke's Code Unknown, and Östlund develops a queasy tension in scenes like this, as we wait to see how his characters will react to the provocations afflicting them. Most of the actors in Involuntary are making their screen debuts in this film, and the director draws uniformly strong and natural performances from them, while the only big name in his cast list boldly plays an unflattering version of herself. As an actress trying to remain as anonymous as possible on a coach trip, Maria Lundqvist takes a key role in perhaps Involuntary's funniest section. What begins as a minor infraction on the coach – the damaging of a curtain rail in the toilet – quickly escalates into a ludicrous stand-off between the driver and his passengers, with the former refusing to budge until the guilty party owns up. Here, Östlund makes the point that someone guilty of a crime often has a very small window of opportunity in which to confess with minimal embarrassment, and if they miss that then every passing minute makes things worse.

The key scene in Involuntary occurs near the start, in my favourite of the film's five stories, when a teacher (Cecilia Milocco) conducts an experiment on her class to display the effect of peer pressure. She forces one child to give a blatantly wrong answer simply by getting all of her classmates to disagree with her when she initially gives the right one, but Östlund isn't simply extolling the virtues of standing firm in your beliefs against outside influences. He complicates matters in the same narrative strand later, when that teacher does speak out against what she sees as a terrible injustice, and unexpectedly finds herself cast as the villain by her colleagues as a result. The director's handling of Involuntary remains impassive and objective, refusing to take sides of make judgements against any of his characters. It often seems impossible for these poor souls to extricate themselves from the socially awkward knots that
Östlund has bound them in, but it certainly is fascinating to watch them try.

Read my interview with Ruben Östlund here.