For those who follow the festival circuit, director Ruben Östlund may be better known for his award winning short film Incident By A Bank which detailed a failed armed robbery and the public’s unlikely reaction to it: rather than running away in fear they stepped even closer to the action as if compelled by an irresistible urge.
Strangely, Incident By A Bank was released in 2009 whilst Involuntary was released in Sweden in 2008, perhaps the wrong way round if you consider the ordinary convention of expanding a short into a full length feature. This reverse route serves as a fitting metaphor for what makes Östlund such a rewarding director: a stringent opponent of tradition who favours the new and surprising.
Involuntary takes human behaviour as its subject and investigates it via five different scenarios as experienced by five different groups. In one section an irate bus driver refuses to move his vehicle until one of the passengers owns up to breaking the curtain rail in the toilet. In another scene a teacher metes out an aggressive punishment to a student which, to the bemusement of a concerned colleague, fails to incense the rest of the staff who are otherwise happy to let the incident slide.
Shot in long static takes, humans are seen as herd animals, observed from a distance as if being filmed in a nature programme. Seen from this perspective the pleasures of Involuntary derive from watching people react under pressure and the results are often startling. If the linking theme is individual behaviour within a group dynamic, the universal outcome is absurdity and, if we’re to learn from Östlund’s morality tales, it’s that we are all equally prone to immoral and strange acts in order to save face.
Involuntary may at times seem episodic but it’s never contrived and achieves the best of what Scandanvian films do: show empathy and good humour towards our follies and imperfections without judgement.