In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund
January 14-22 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
In interviews about the inspiration for his masterful Force Majeure, a deadpan psychodrama about a crisis of masculinity set at a fancy French ski resort, director Ruben Östlund is fond of citing two studies. The first found that couples are much more likely to divorce after experiencing an airplane hijacking, and the second that, on average, men survive maritime disasters at a much higher rate than women. From there, the film’s premise: while on vacation in the Alps, a father abandons his family when an avalanche plummets towards the restaurant where they’re having a meal. The screen goes white, but it turns out to be a false alarm, and Tomas spends the rest of the trip reckoning with his reaction.
Before turning his attention to an individual response to catastrophe, the Swedish director was known for his discomfiting examinations of Scandinavian society under pressure, as witnessed in a touring retrospective of his work to date. While in films such as Play (2011)—Östlund’s controversial take on a real-life case of three boys who were robbed and psychologically manipulated by a group of young African immigrants—the forces are external, in others they’re a matter of self-policing, desire running up against decorum. Involuntary (2008), Östlund’s second feature—which like Play will receive a weeklong theatrical run when the series comes to Lincoln Center—toggles between five separate storylines centered on conformity and will. A man is shot in the eye with a firework during a dinner party and refuses to go to the hospital, preferring to be a good host; a teacher outs an abusive colleague after schooling her class in peer pressure; a drunken night goes off the rails for two underage girls looking for fun. Scenes are shot naturalistically and characters respond calmly, sometimes not seeming to grasp the implications of what’s going on. It’s all vaguely absurd, but Östlund is less interested in moralizing than he is in untangling the social forces that underlie unusual, if everyday, scenarios in the socialist north. Rather than lampoon Sweden’s permissiveness and hypocrisy, his films pose urgent questions—What are the limits of self-effacement in an excessively modest culture? How does political correctness transform power dynamics?—and respond with wry case studies.
Östlund’s style is characterized by long single takes—a holdover from his time directing ski movies, where an extended shot signals that an athlete didn’t screw up (a selection of these is also included in the series). Characters wander in and out of frame, and are often filmed for what can feel like an excessive amount of time. This forces viewers to look directly at things that might be uncomfortable—underage girls stripping for a webcam in Involuntary, black boys scamming white ones in Play—but it also sets up the tragicomic element of Östlund’s films. Punctuating the tense racial dynamics of Play, for instance, are scenes of a band of buskers performing in a square in Gothenburg. They’re speaking Spanish but are dressed in full American Indian regalia; later, we see them having lunch at McDonald’s. It’s funny, but we’re not sure who’s the butt of the joke—the musicians in drag or the Swedes willing to pay them. The answer, I suspect, is both. It’s not quite tragedy and not quite farce, but somewhere in between—life as oscillation between crisis and catharsis.