Where did Ruben Ostlund suddenly materialize from?
Although the Swedish filmmaker has been making features for a decade — garnering recognition for his work in such international film-festival hot spots as Cannes — it wasn’t until his latest movie, “Force Majeure,” that the 40-year-old director managed to capture the attention of American audiences (if only the arthouse crowd). His powerful new film, which investigates the emotional aftershocks in the wake of an avalanche witnessed by a Swedish family on a skiing vacation in the French Alps, has already popped up on several year-end best lists (including Ann Hornaday’s). The movie also is a heavy favorite among handicappers of Academy Award nominations, which will be announced Thursday. (It is Sweden’s official entry in the category of best foreign language film.)
That’s why the traveling Ostlund retrospective, “In Case of No Emergency,” is such a treat. Opening at AFI Silver on Thursday with a 7:15 p.m. screening of “Force Majeure” (followed by a Q&A with the director), the series includes not just that 2014 title, but also all three of Ostlund’s previous features. As a bonus, the theater also will screen two shorts: “Autobiographical Scene Number 6882” (2005) and “Incident by a Bank” (2009). Together, the package reveals a remarkable auteur. Ostlund’s distinctive voice and vision is apparent in his earliest film, “The Guitar Mongoloid” (Feb. 17 at 9:30 p.m.).
That work is certainly the director’s strangest. Shot over the course of several years — whenever the still-struggling filmmaker was able to scrape together money — “The Guitar Mongoloid” has been compared, aptly, to Harmony Korine’s bizarre debut, “Gummo.” Like that 1997 movie, which is something of an acquired taste, Ostlund’s 2004 debut features disjointed vignettes about characters dwelling on society’s fringes. It takes its title from a boy with Down syndrome (Erik Rutstrom) who busks on the streets, whaling away tunelessly on a guitar while screaming obscene lyrics. But the other sequences, which focus on vandals, a woman with an apparent obsessive-compulsive disorder and drunks playing with guns, are equally odd. Although the film, like much of Ostlund’s oeuvre, focuses on inappropriate behavior, “Guitar” ends with a surreally beautiful shot of a makeshift helium balloon fashioned from dozens of trash bags, drifting over a city skyline.
It packs a quietly poetic punch.
Ostlund’s signature visual style is in full evidence in this early work. The director’s trademark technique — setting up his camera and then letting it run, with minimal movement — is a holdover from his pre-feature-filmmaking career as a creator of skiing documentaries. In a departure from the action inherent in winter sports, however, Ostlund’s features are characterized by emotional drama and the psychological games people play.
That theme of group dynamics comes into sharp focus in Ostlund’s next two films, “Play” (Feb. 9 at 7 p.m.) and “Involuntary” (Feb. 12 at 9 p.m.). Both delve incisively into the nature of peer pressure, social expectations and the fragility of the human ego. Inspired by true events, the racially charged “Play” examines bullying among two groups of school-age boys, one white, one black. “Involuntary” knits together five separate stories involving the psychological forces that move us to do foolish things.
In interviews, Ostlund has characterized the focus of his work as “behavioristic.” Yet these films are far from dry sociology. Laced with a kind of existential dread, they are the product of an artist whose passionate curiosity about human nature is matched by his ability to weave a narrative with real pull from the flimsy threads of a shaggy-dog story.