On a January evening in 2009, police were called to a bridge in Stockholm where a woman was about to commit suicide. She was taken to a psychiatric hospital, but the following day she told the doctors that she had staged the whole thing. Anna Odell was in fact an art student and the incident was part of a film she was making for school. Her purpose was to expose the hierarchies within psychiatric institutions and how society views mental illness. The incident was widely debated in Sweden, but she was eventually fined for what she did. A few years later, Odell made her first feature film, one that was hailed as a masterpiece by many Swedish critics.
The film is divided into two parts. The first one, which takes up most of the movie, is set at a class reunion. It’s been twenty years since the class graduated after spending nine years together. Now they’re set to share a nice meal, wine and memories… but one of the guests is not about to let her classmates get off that easily. When Anna stands up to make a speech, she targets first the boys and girls who bullied her, then the ones who simply avoided her and did nothing to help. The evening becomes increasingly awkward as attempts to silence Anna and remind her that they were all children and can’t be held responsible for what they did fall on deaf ears.
A fantasy inspired by real life
It’s difficult to talk about this movie without discussing its structure, thus revealing a few spoilers. The first part turns out to be a fantasy inspired by real life – but with a twist. When Odell’s real class had its reunion she wasn’t invited, which one can only interpret as a way of continuing the bullying that she was exposed to as a child. In other words, she exacts her revenge by imagining what would happen if she did go to the reunion and confronted her former tormentors.
The second part of the movie is not a fantasy, but a reenactment of what happened when she did in fact contact some of her old classmates and showed them the film’s first half; their reactions are recreated by actors, with Odell once again playing herself. She has described this film not as a revenge fantasy, but another attempt to expose hierarchies. The experiment is partly successful. The film’s first part is awkward and telling in the way the former bullies respond to a confrontation like this – Odell makes the fictional version of herself very annoying, pushing them to reverse back to their childhood selves. The second chapter is more civilized, but still revelatory in the way the former classmates protect themselves and their idealized image of what school was like.
The final scene is another confrontation, this time between one of the classmates and one of the actors from the film’s first part, an interesting way for Odell to show us that she’s not unaware of how easily she might be regarded as a bully by making this film.
What’s most notable about The Reunion is its structure and how the director inserts herself in the story. By way of the superior Danish film The Celebration (1998), Odell makes us ponder our own years in school. But for me it’s hard to ignore that the film as it is feels quite staged, like a coldly calculated experiment.
The Reunion 2013-Sweden. 89 min. Color. Produced by Mathilde Dedye. Written and directed by Anna Odell. Cast: Anna Odell (Anna), Anders Berg (Anders), David Nordström (David), Christopher Wollter, Cilla Thorell, Henrik Norlén… Malin Levanon.
Trivia: Original title: Återträffen.
Last word: “I just had this idea and a vague script of the first part of the film at the reunion. The idea was how it might be worked out in the second part but with nothing really developed. But [the financiers] believed in the project and gave us some money for research and so I began to figure out the different ways to approach it, working with actors and shaping the narrative. We started a casting process where we would ask the men and women to tell us their own experiences from school. The actors, for the most part, have similar experiences in terms of where they fall in this hierarchy as they do in the film. So I gave them my idea of how they were as kids and then, together with their real-life experiences, we created the characters.” (Odell, Dox Magazine)