Film Review: Involuntary (2010)

on Monday, November 01, 2010
Words: Paul Dean

'Involuntary' (UK Release: 29 Oct '10)

Director: Ruben Östlund
Cast: Maria Lundqvist, Villmar Björkman, Linnea Cart-Lamy, Leif Edlund

I have to admit that I have a personal bias toward long takes in filmmaking. I believe that they focus the viewer, that they're immersive and that they can also be an incredible way to create tension. At the same time, tension built in this way can make me feel extremely nervous, probably because I’ve seen a lot of films employ this unflinching technique to demonstrate particularly sudden, unpleasant or outright gruesome events. I spent perhaps the first quarter of Swedish film 'Involuntary' squirming, worried that horrific things might spontaneously happen to each and every character, a fear reinforced by an early scene where a man is struck in the eye by a firework.

My nerves thanked me as they came to realise the film has a rather different mood to it. Rather than a voyeuristic thriller like 'Caché', this is instead something of a bite-sized psychological study, a film that cuts between five simple and unrelated narratives, each exploring how an individual behaves in or responds to a group. The firework victim, for example, is hurt during his party, but tries to shrug off his injury and soldier on so that the celebration can continue; a coach driver refuses to do his job until someone admits to damaging his vehicle; a teacher risks being ostracised when she objects to her colleague’s treatment of a pupil.

These are entirely unfurnished stories, lacking music or any obvious signs of post-production, featuring almost no camerawork and, as I stated, hardly any edits either. At their core they’re largely very basic tales, but through such elementary, emphatic direction, and with strong performances from every single member of its cast, 'Involuntary' manages to grant impressive credibility and real gravitas to each of its characters and their situations, even if their narratives are largely unremarkable. Its sparse aspect reinforces just how much of our social psychology can involve awkward silences and unspoken feelings and how little things can become so difficult, something which makes it extremely genuine.

That said, I’m not sure I can find myself recommending this film to everyone. It’s essentially no more than five brief interspersed character studies, all of which are more curious than fascinating, interesting but never gripping. 'Involuntary' defines its own limits and explores them thoroughly, showing us unpleasant truths about group behaviour and leaving us to mull on them afterwards, but that is the only purpose its stories and situations serve. A cynical little part of me can’t help but feel that if the stories were presented sequentially, rather than being cut between, they would become surprisingly mediocre.

'Involuntary' is on limited release in the UK now, see here for locations.

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