Ruben Östlund's Films Explore the Ugliness of Humanity

<i>Force Majeure</i>

Force Majeure

Imagine this: You're sitting at a mountaintop café with your spouse and your two kids. All of a sudden, an avalanche heads toward you. At first you think it's controlled, but then you realize that it's about to barrel over everyone in the restaurant. Do you, a) run for your life, b) put your body over your loved ones to protect them or c) other? In Force Majeure (Turist), a film by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, the main character picks the first option, and then has to live with the fact that he abandoned his family in a moment of crisis, even though the incident didn't cause any real physical harm.

The film, along with two others by the filmmaker, will be screening this weekend.

The film follows a married couple as they grapple with the aftermath. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), who fled his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children, denies he ever did such a thing. Ebba, horrified at her husband's cowardice, can't let the incident go. 

Along the way, they interact with other couples and share the story. This causes internal havoc with Tomas's best friend, for example, because his twenty-something ski-bunny girlfriend accuses him of being the type of person to run as well. 

Östlund favors long takes, lingering at times on landscape and the facial expressions of the characters, who become increasingly more stressed as the film progresses, despite the fact that the climax happens at the beginning. 

As a director, Östlund has quite a knack for drawing out riveting performances, particularly Kuhnke and Loven Kongsli. Kristofer Hivju, who plays Tomas's friend Matts, also excels in his role as the aging Generation X-er whose free-loving vacation turns sour in response to Tomas and Ebba's troubles. 

In his films, Östlund seeks out the worst in people, showing them at their most vulnerable and ugly. In Involuntary (De Ofrivilliga), Östlund follows several storylines that, like Force Majeure, follow a theme. In this case it's group behavior. The character of Cecilia, played by Cecilia Milocco, sets up the premise in her elementary school class by telling one of her students to leave the classroom. When the student returns, she is asked a series of questions, to which everyone else in the class disagrees. 

Cecilia later experiences being the victim of group behavior when the other teachers turn on her for reporting a colleague who hit a student. Other characters in the film generally make bad decisions, propelled on by the others in their circle. This includes two teenagers, desperate to grow up, who make a series of stupid choices that ends with one of them passing out and being picked up by a stranger; a recently dumped bus driver who, out of pride, refuses to start the bus until someone confesses to breaking the toilet; and an old man who accidentally shoots a firecracker at himself, and refuses to go to the hospital because he's hosting a party for his wife. It can be rather painful to watch these characters do the wrong thing due to social pressure or nobody in the group being willing to stand up and call something out when it's wrong.

Play also tracks group mentality. Like the teenage girls in Involuntary, it mines the almost secret existence of youth, who seem to be invisible to the adults for most of the film. They face struggles that exist in their own kid world, incapable of seeing a way out of it. 

Play drew some controversy when it was first released. It focuses on a gang of black immigrant boys who make a habit of stealing cell phones from unsuspecting young white boys. The main group of victims in the film, two young white boys and their Asian friend, are intimidated into coming with the group of boys to a remote location where they have their stuff taken. But at that point, it's not much of a fight. After being bullied and tormented for most of the film, the victims actually find it a relief to finally get to go home. 

There are some problematic stereotypes in the film, though like Östlund's other works, there's plenty of nuance as well. The film kind of redeems itself at the end, as two angry white dads jostle two of the black boys and get reprimanded by a female passerby. The film gives explanations for the boys' behavior -- poverty, family issues, group think -- but never really gets on the inside of their heads. Play for the most part is told from the white boys' perspective, although in the end, like in Östlund's other films, there really aren't many redeeming characters. 


In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund

Involuntary: Saturday, January 17 at 2 p.m. ($9)

Play: Saturday, January 17 at 7:30 p.m. ($9) Followed by a Q & A with the filmmaker

Force Majeure (Turist): Sunday, January 18 at 2 p.m. ($12) Followed by a post-screening discussion with Östlund  and Dennis Lim, director of programming at Film Society Lincoln Center, New York