Film Review: Involuntary

When peer pressure gets mixed with alcohol, the Swedish summertime finds itself host to all manner of indiscretions in Ruben Östlund’s Involuntary.

But don’t get too excited, because in real life that doesn’t equal cheerleaders and hot tubs and table-dancing. In fact, as you might expect, reality is much less glamorous – and this is exactly what Östlund attempts to capture with this film.

The slightly banal nature of peer pressure is something which would ordinarily pass many of us by, but if you’re up for focussing on its many manifestations for a good couple of hours, then this is definitely the film for you. It seems like almost too broad a theme for the very different lives and stories in Östlund’s film, but it is probably the only one which links them all together.

The closest that Involuntary gets to the sort of provocative misbehaviour you might expect to find in a Hollywood take on peer pressure is two blonde girls, who enjoy posing seductively for a camera and drunkenly flirting with much older men. However, their age and naivety makes for relatively uncomfortable viewing, and the slightly improvised nature of Östlund’s script means the situation which results from their high jinks is all too believable. This, undoubtedly, is Östlund’s intention.

This is all pretty far removed from his contrasting portrayal of a firework party that goes wrong and leaves an older man injured but refusing to go to hospital. Rather than put a dampener on the evening’s events, the Swedish gent takes something of a British approach and carries on regardless as host.

The most humorous story allows us to eavesdrop on a woman who accidentally vandalises a coach, but refuses to admit to it. As the driver stops the coach and refuses to continue until the culprit owns up, you begin to sympathise with the character as she squirms in her seat, very much aware that she has now left it far too long to admit she is to blame.

However, the audience aren’t allowed to enjoy these light-hearted moments for long before being plunged back into the odd realism of one of the other stories. From the fairly mundane school teacher who attempts to fight for justice within the staff room, to the group of lads whose raucous antics escalate into a homosexual assault, its mostly quite heavy-going stuff.

Yet Östlund also makes a point of offsetting any potentially climactic moments with a sense of triviality, in a way which would remind any viewer familiar with Thomas Vinterberg‘s Festen with that film.

The other aspect of this film which it is hard not to notice is the unconventional manner in which it is shot. Not only will you probably find yourself slightly disorientated by the completely unconnected narratives, which make it a little like watching the polar opposite of Love, Actually, you’re also more than likely to be confused by most of the filming choices.

Östlund favours long takes with his filming – a habit which he apparently picked up from his early skiing films, where the less cuts in the action, the better. This works well in creating a fly-on-the-wall feel, with the actors constantly walking in and out of any given frame. What is slightly more frustrating is Östlund’s tendency to place said fly behind pillars, facing away from the action, and generally in an awkward position. As the film constant shifts from one storyline to another, getting a good look at the faces and locations associated with each story becomes very helpful, and yet it is something we’re not always provided with.

That said, the film gets full marks for realism. Not only are some of the most poignant scenes partially improvised, but the only relatively well-known actress cast in Involuntary, Maria Lundkvist, is given a tailor-made role playing a famous actress. Yet, despite basing so much of the narrative on reality, Östlund still manages to conjure up something of the unnerving atmosphere long coveted by Michael Haneke when exploring such social issues.

Involuntary does what its director sets out to do, as anyone who’s researched Östlund’s cinematic aims will probably testify. Unfortunately, as most people won’t have done this, it’s more questionable whether it entertains, or even intrigues for more than half its length.

Involuntary is released in the UK on 29th October.

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Rating: 3.5/5 (4 votes cast)
Film Review: Involuntary, 3.5 out of 5 based on 4 ratings