Involuntary Review

Sometimes a point is made best when it’s made quietly, almost without being made at all. Sometimes, if there’s little being said, we work a bit harder and then come to some sort of point ourselves. It’s subtle and clever and in Involuntary, it works.

In this, his first feature film, Swedish writer and director Ruben Östlund presents five slices of life exploring the nature of the individual within the group. He looks at how much our decisions are motivated by a desire to please, to remain an accepted part of the whole, and then he examines the awkward or disastrous consequences these decisions can have.

How many of our actions are truly involuntary? This could be dark, heavy stuff but it’s not. This film is often sweet, funny and enchanting. It’s also muted, distant and cool, without being judgemental. As a director, it’s like he’s simply sitting back and watching the events he has set into action with a bemused and affectionate smile.

Making use of long takes and secretive vantage points, and dispensing with such conventions as music, dramatic lighting or rapid cuts, Östlund makes no apologies for being a voyeur. We just watch.

We watch passengers squirm on a cringeworthy coach trip, teenage girls in their bedroom preening themselves for trouble, a dinner party host struggling with an injury he refuses to admit. We see a principled young teacher making herself unpopular with her workmates and a group of drunk men allowing a joke to go a bit too far.

We watch in true curtain-twitching style through windows, around corners, over a web cam. We’re often either too close or too far away to get the full picture, and action sometimes happens completely or partially off screen. As viewers, we’re kept busy. Events might be unfolding slowly and potentially tediously, but the unusual camera work means we have to work to see them. It’s visually interesting, rather beautiful and fun.

“I always strive to strike a balance between presence and absence of my own values,” says Östlund, and in Involuntary this balance has been achieved. Yes, his values are present in the fact he’s asking these questions and has created this ensemble to explore them with. But they’re absent in that he’s not constantly prodding us with cinematic devices to tell us how to respond. The result is an inventive, satirical film that’s provocative without being condescending.

Kathy Alys

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