Working in a minimalist, matter-of-fact manner with static takes and discrete cuts between scenes and situations, there’s an inevitable tendency to compare Ruben Östlund’s Involuntary with fellow Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. Östlund’s film however has less to do with Andersson’s TV advertising aesthetic and banal observations and has more to do with a deeply cynical, satirical look at somewhat disagreeable characteristics that show deep-seated fractures in society in the manner of Michael Haneke or Ulrich Seidl. The fact that the director is Swedish is nonetheless an important factor in differentiating his work from that of the masters of Austrian glaciation, Östlund finding a vulnerable as well as a humorous edge in several stories of human failing, that perhaps only serves to heighten a more sinister underlying problem in modern day society, one that is more specific to the nature of Northern Europeans, and, consequently something uncomfortably all too recognisable.
The five stories of social awkwardness and embarrassment that are inter-cut in a fragmentary fashion throughout the film are well chosen and, even if they are unconnected and relating to people of different ages and temperaments, they all exceptionally well-observed, showing the fine line between a harmless incident and a rather more serious one that is compounded by stupidity.
In one strand, a bus driver, who is going through a marriage breakup, halts his coach and refuses to continue until the person who broke a curtain rail in the toilet owns up to the deed. In another, an elderly gentleman unadvisedly goes to examine a misfired firework to an expected outcome. In a third story, a teacher who has just given a lesson in peer pressure to her students has to deal with a similar real-life situation involving her colleagues. Elsewhere, two young teenage girls, all glammed-up and seeking attention, get into potentially serious trouble when they get dangerously drunk. In the final strand, a young man feels that the seemingly macho antics of his friends have gotten somewhat uncomfortably out of hand during a boys’ weekend out in the country.
While these sound like rather ordinary, commonplace stories, it’s their very mundane quality that gives them a sense of authenticity, and makes them all the more troubling when examined in this way. What makes these incidents of social awkwardness rather more interesting is not so much the act as the response, many of the individuals concerned being too embarrassed and non-confrontational to react in a responsible manner. Who then is more guilty? The one who has committed the act of stupidity, or the person who witnesses it and says nothing? That sounds like the kind of situation that a director like Michael Haneke could make a great deal out of, making it into a self-reflexive parable to censoriously point out the evils in our modern society. It’s not too difficult to see that, through a wider number of varied examples with similar responses, Ruben Östlund is certainly pointing out that these attitudes are widespread, and could indeed lead to something more serious on a greater scale, but – thankfully – he doesn’t seem to be all that interested in making a spurious case that failing to admit to accidentally breaking a curtain rail is just a step away from being implicated in war atrocities.
Rather than make some grand remark about guilt and society, Ruben Östlund’s film is more interested in the human aspect of such reactions which, judging by its title, he considers involuntary responses and, as such, not something one should be needlessly castigated for. The observations made then are not particularly revelatory but they are cleverly related (and exceptionally well-played by the cast) in a way that heightens the embarrassment factor, the director choosing to photograph the people with their faces mostly half-hidden and out-of-frame, as if we would be too embarrassed to look them in the face, but also to make them universal rather than specific. Most importantly, the director is fully open to the humour implicit in the stories and cognisant of the way that humour plays a part in how people deal with such situations, which if they are not funny at the time, become amusing little incidents to relate to your friends when you look back on them.
The trailer for Involuntary can be viewed here: