Peer Pressure: The Films of Ruben Ostlund
Ruben Östlund is a provocateur. He’s a filmmaker who designs his films around confronting viewers with the kinds of necessary questions that rarely get asked. His primary target: the way society influences people to act out in ways that go directly against their own interests. His films call out the unspoken rules people obey in order to function with each other, and question why we sometimes generate a conflict between our thoughts and actions. Last year, Östlund finally broke through to North American Audiences with Force Majeure, his award-winning film about a family’s skiing vacation gone wrong.
Up until recently, Östlund’s previous films weren’t available for North American audiences; none of them received distribution of any kind in the US and Canada. But now, thanks to Force Majeure, Östlund’s first three films, along with two of his shorts, have been screening across the US and Canada in the series In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund. The series has now made its way to Toronto, where it will screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox from April 9th and 14th.
By going through Östlund’s filmography, it’s easy to see an evolution of form and content that increases in scale and ambition. The Guitar Mongoloid (Screens Sunday, April 12th at 6:30pm, along with two short films), Östlund’s debut feature, is his most basic work, and the one that has Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s influence all over it. The film plays out in a series of slightly connected vignettes, with the camera observing several groups of societal outcasts across the same city. It’s a hit-and-miss collection of scenes that go from inappropriately hilarious (a woman with OCD trying to leave her apartment) to unbearably tense (two bikers convince their friend to play Russian roulette). Other than the focus on society’s lower classes and “undesirables,” there isn’t much of a thematic connection here, but the film establishes Östlund’s distinct style from the get-go: a stationary camera, usually placed far away from the action, observing events over a long take. The literal and figurative distance from the characters gives Östlund’s film the feeling of watching surveillance footage rather than something invented.
Östlund’s obsession with realism is at its strongest in The Guitar Mongoloid, as the shoestring budget, shoddy audio and blurring of one character’s face give off the sense that the film is more documentary than fiction. In Östlund’s second feature, Involuntary (Screens Saturday, April 11th at 6:30pm), he improves on the format he established in Guitar Mongoloid. Involuntary also unfolds in a series of vignettes, but with stronger visuals and a strong thematic link between each of the film’s five stories. Within each segment, a trend emerges: characters behave in ways that go against their best interests, just so they won’t get ostracized. It’s reminiscent of psychological tests and phenomenon like the Milgram experiment, or the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese, where external forces paralyzed people into immoral action or complete inaction. Involuntary actually has a scene where a teacher puts one of her students through a psychological test to point out the power of peer pressure. A student is shown a picture of two lines, one short and one long, and gets asked to pick the longer one, not knowing that no matter what she picks her classmates will disagree with her, insisting the shorter line is the right one. Eventually the girl incorrectly picks the shorter line, even though she admits she knows it isn’t the correct answer.
Three years after Involuntary, Östlund took a massive leap forward with Play (Screens Thursday, April 9th at 6:30pm), his best film to date. The style stays the same, but this time the focus stays on one story instead of several. Based on a series of real-life petty crimes, Play follows a group of black, immigrant children as they bully and rob three well-to-do kids through an elaborate, lengthy scheme. It’s a highly provocative film, and signifies a major shift for Östlund. He suggests that the bullying kids get away with their crimes because their targets have a fear of being labelled racist if they don’t comply. Naturally, this racial aspect of the film sparked some outrage from viewers, but there was something more unsettling about what happens in Play. In Involuntary, there was no sense of maliciousness on anyone’s part; people tended to put the pressure on themselves to do things they didn’t want to do out of a need to “fit in.” In Play, the characters have evolved. They’re aware of societal standards, and have no qualms about taking advantage of them to get what they want. That blatant “rule breaking” could have been what got under viewers’ skin the most.
Force Majeure (Screens Tuesday, April 14th at 6:30pm) isn’t nearly as provocative as Play, but its story of a father’s selfish action during a crisis is by far his most accessible film to date. It uses a more conventional style (it might be the first time he uses shot reverse shot in any of his films), and its focus on a white, upper-class nuclear family means the racial landmines of Play are avoided altogether. But some of Force Majeure’s themes, like dealing with people’s “selfish” instincts to survive, are far more universal. And it’s Östlund’s funniest film to date, with almost every moment dedicated to tearing down its main character’s masculinity in the most uncomfortable ways imaginable. Force Majeure’s teeth may not be as sharp as Play’s, but the film still has a lot of bite to it. And while the film’s success—a US remake was just announced not too long ago—could push Östlund in a more mainstream direction, it’s hard to imagine his work getting any less fascinating. Few filmmakers can confront viewers with such grand-scale, daunting questions and get them laughing at the same time.
In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund plays at the TIFF Bell Lightbox from April 9th to 14th. To find out more information and buy tickets, click here.