Director Ruben Östlund’s first feature film, The Guitar Mongoloid (2004), was celebrated by his fans although it hardly won many new ones. This one on the other hand had the potential of introducing Östlund to a wider audience. The movie received high praise and became Sweden’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Academy Awards. Involuntary turned out to be too demanding for the Academy, but those who choose to spend 102 minutes with it will have food for thought.
We are introduced to five different situations that play out concurrently. A party takes a turn for the nasty when a batch of fireworks explodes in the host’s (Vilmar Björkman) face. One of the projectiles hit him in the eye, but he shrugs it off and stubbornly pretends like nothing. The injury is bandaged and the party continues, even though his wife and daughter discuss whether or not they should take him to a hospital. Another scene has two girls (Linnéa Cart-Lamy, Sara Eriksson) who are barely teenagers taking sexually charged photos of themselves and drinking alcohol together with friends; their evening of fun will not end well.
Another party is taking place out in the countryside where a gang of twentysomething male buddies are gathering; one of them makes frequent, drunken passes at one of the other guys, which is not taken altogether lightly.
Then there’s the bus ride; famous Swedish actor Maria Lundqvist is traveling with a long-distance bus, but the journey is halted when the driver (Henrik Vikman) discovers that someone broke a curtain pole in the toilet; he refuses to get back behind the wheel unless the guilty party confesses to the crime. The fifth situation has a teacher (Cecilia Milocco) witnessing a beating of a student done by a colleague. She confronts him, but is warned that if she intends to pursue this issue there will be hell to pay.
The camera is a peaceful observer
Each and every one of these situations present a dilemma or simply portray bizarre circumstances where someone behaves in a way that should not be seen as normal, but all too often is treated by others as OK. The fireworks scene is funny in a dark way and reminds me so much of certain people I know; this horrible accident happens and not only does the stricken person choose to ignore it, but everyone else accepts his attitude because somehow the alternative would be embarrassing. There’s also an encounter between the two teens and an adult passenger on a streetcar that follows the same theme. Other scenes show people that choose to stand his or her ground and face the backlash.
The interesting thing is that the filmmakers don’t necessarily portray those people as always doing the right thing. It is easy to sympathize with the teacher, but the bus driver is clearly having some kind of breakdown. Östlund takes a cue from his Swedish colleague Roy Andersson; the camera never moves but is a peaceful observer, letting the actors and the message have all the attention. The cast is admirably well put together, consisting of both amateurs and trained actors (it’s a pleasure watching Lundqvist play herself as a star who’s tormented by all-too friendly fans). They are all entirely believable and so are the five situations, tragically enough.
Some people viewed this film as utterly Swedish, portraying people that are constantly struggling with when and why it might be the right time to break a pattern that we almost from birth seem to become a part of in this country. The problem could be so Swedish in its nature that foreign audiences will only view the film as a curious, anthropological study.
Involuntary 2008-Sweden. 102 min. Color. Produced by Erik Hemmendorff. Directed by Ruben Östlund. Screenplay: Ruben Östlund, Erik Hemmendorff. Cast: Maria Lundqvist, Henrik Vikman (The Bus Driver), Cecilia Milocco (The Teacher), Linnéa Cart-Lamy, Sara Eriksson, Vilmar Björkman.
Trivia: Original title: De ofrivilliga.
Last word: “I was very interested in highlighting group behaviour and I wanted to show that I think this is very fundamental about being a human being… that we are herd animals actually. So, I was looking for different situations that take place in different kinds of groups. So, one group was 13-year-old girls, and one was a 60-year-old birthday party and so on, just to highlight the topic. So, I was thinking of situations I’d encountered myself, or I was talking to friends and they were telling me about situations they ended up in. So, for example, the coach ride… a friend of mine was on a bus journey to the French Alps and when he went to the toilet he accidentally broke the curtain. So, a little bit later into the trip the driver said he wouldn’t go any further until the person who did it confesses. What I thought was so interesting was this… he told me that he had a couple of seconds when he had the opportunity to say it was him, but the longer he remained silent, the harder it got to confess.” (Östlund, indieLondon)