Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s often simultaneous serious and satirical probing of behavior (mostly bad) examines individuals and groups, using long takes, static (but riveting) frames, frequently obscured faces and a preoccupation with public transportation (perhaps for its close quarters and democratic space)–the quote in this post’s title is from a conversation a middle-aged woman in his second feature, “Involuntary,” is trying to initiate with a well-known actress she recognizes on a long-distance bus.
Östlund who began his career in 1997 shooting stunning ski films (long takes, no cuts, as proof that the fantastic athletic feats on the slopes are genuine), has said that his fourth and current feature, “Force Majeure,” (Sweden’s 2014 entry to the Academy Awards), is “a ski trip to hell.” Concerned with “the other” in his three earlier features, here “the other” sleeps in the same bed, is head of the family.
“Play” (2011), its narrative suffused with suspense (and dread) and some very absurdist humor (a traveling cradle), deals with one of the most important (and tragically, after last week’s shootings at Charlie Hebdo, up-to-the-minute topical) world issues–how can different cultures, races, religions, ethnicities and economic groups learn to co-exist, make accommodations, acclimate and thrive.
In “Involuntary” (2008), a series of five bourgeois groups are ill-at-ease and make questionable decisions. A man hosting his wife’s elegant birthday party denies the seriousness of an injury. On a boys’ weekend away, 30-something friends ignore when horsing around becomes sexual assault. Teachers ostracize one of their colleagues for objecting to another’s discipline of a student that crosses the line. A bus driver refuses to continue the trip because of insignificant damage in the bus’ lavatory.
And in a scene, nearly identical to one in “Play,” blonde teenage Swedish girls, drunk, on the subway, harass a guy with a new cell phone, like the black immigrant teenage boys who harass a white guy with red dreadlocks over his expensive headphones. But the scenes play very differently because of the racial/gender differences and the perception of threat/lack of threat.
“In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund,” a fifteen-city touring retrospective of the four features and several shorts Östlund made in the first 10 years of his career opens today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunim Munroe Film Center and runs through Thursday, January 22. Östlund will introduce and participate in Q&As at screenings on January 14 and January 16.
(I very briefly considered calling this post “When Robin met Ruben”–struck me funny.)