At the New Zealand International Film Festival: two brilliant Swedish takes on human relations.
Artist Anna Odell gained notoriety in Sweden when she faked a mental breakdown. The ensuing emergency reaction and media storm meant that many were outraged by Odell’s performance. The story also took on a life of its own, to the point that some in the media (and interestingly enough, some of the characters in her debut film The Reunion) characterised it as a suicide attempt.
Odell discovered that she wasn’t invited to her school reunion by her classmates (of nine years) a few years after the incident. Odell was heavily bullied at school, and as the film suggests, she was treated with suspicion at best, and utter contempt at worst. She had planned to go to the reunion—and had planned a speech—and so in The Reunion decided to recreate her intended speech (and the expected reaction of her classmates). The film then shifts at its midpoint, turning to follow Odell as she hunts her old classmates to show the recreated film to them. She recreates these real-life interactions, as her friends prevaricate, procrastinate, and excuse their behaviour to increasingly hilarious effect.
The self-reflexivity of the second half of the film adds a compelling weight to the first half’s dynamite reunion. Obviously the original participants wouldn’t appear on camera, and Odell wryly notes that by recreating her interactions, the camera has the ability to victimise and punish people. This is most notable in a scene where a ‘real-life’ person confronts the actor playing him. Odell has subsequently said that this scene never occurred, but that it could occur. The film acts as a kind of wish fulfilment in the sense that the camera has the ability to rewrite or recast the past, and importantly gives a voice to those who have been repressed. Odell is aware of this power, but there is also a sense that Odell recognises that without the camera, she may have been powerless to compel others to confront the past. Her classmates’ reluctance to confront the past suggests the camera isn’t infallible (the film’s reaction on the other hand might trigger some soul-searching).
Odell’s film also looks at bullying, the nature of memory and nostalgia in turning dark histories into ‘golden years’, and the way we figure out ways to excuse our behaviour in hindsight. It’s almost a psychological experiment à la Stanley Milgram, the “I was just following orders,” “I was young,” “it meant nothing,” etc. approach. Critics of the film, who have accused it of being self-pitying or narcissistic, have completely missed the point—the past echoes in the people’s current lives. Those critics have also adopted the discourse of the bully in trying to rationalise past treatment and its contemporary ripples. Odell’s ordeals included being kicked in the groin and being publicly ignored, things which don’t simply become easy to accept with the passage of time.
Even more pointedly, one can replace Odell’s character in the film with things from our past we’d rather not talk about societally (homophobia, racism, sexism for example) or on an individual basis (the nature of scapegoating and bullying). In this respect it has similar thematic concerns to Michael Haneke’s Hidden (Caché) in the way nostalgia and repression effaces past injustices. The Reunion though is far more banal than Hidden, and in many respects, that banality is even more chilling.
Haneke proves another point of comparison to Ruben Östlund’s brilliant Force Majeure. The breakdown in family relationships and interactions are straight out of the Austrian auteur’s filmography, but like Odell, the banality is the kicker and prevents the events depicted from becoming too alienating and cold. The everydayness to the narrative adds an extra level of resonance to the proceedings—and it must be said, this would be a dreadful film to go to on a first date (or actually, on any date). Of course, being set in the French Alps adds a wintery tinge to the proceedings (an ironic use of Vivaldi’s Summer apart), but the microscopic nature of Östlund’s gaze and his visual intelligence makes this film a fiery one.
A model nuclear family takes a holiday in the Alps, a chance for some family time after the husband, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), has been too busy with work. Instantly Östlund’s amazing use of space takes over—his characters while in the same shot are alienated from each other, swamped by the immensity of the Alps. A chance moment, an Act of God as the English version of the title implies (though human created as the events play out), jolts everything: a controlled avalanche charges towards the restaurant where the family are having lunch, and their subsequent reaction to the perceived danger spills over into all sorts of recriminations.
While the material has the potential to become an exercise in the miserable, Östlund integrates comic touches to drive the narrative, whether it’s a marvellous scene involving mistaken identity in a bar, or a ridiculous crying scene. The characters’ disparate versions of the incident, and the way it dominates their future interactions, are at once both hilarious and deeply cruel. Tomas’s machismo and alpha-male status, in particular, is gradually whittled down by his shortcomings. It’s a brutal and hubristic account of contemporary masculinity. The coda of an ending, while arguably unnecessary, balances the ledger somewhat, lest Östlund be viewed as gendering his story too much. Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), the wife, doesn’t come across scot-free throughout the film anyway, sadistically bringing up the events at inopportune moments (though her anger is more than a little justified). This suggests the cracks apparent between the two at the start of the film were always full-blown fissures.
The story itself is carried, and commented on, by the stunning visuals. Östlund suggests that he is already well on his way to being a master at fusing visuals and thematic resonance. The family are nothing more than ants, and it’s the little things that collapse the supposed edifices that they construct. Rather than have his protagonists dominated by urban landscapes (Östlund shows himself as a heir to the visual and thematic tradition of Michelangelo Antonioni, just way funnier), it’s the impassive natural landscapes that dominate the puny human attempts to tame it. And it’s not just the family. It’s the hotel, the ski-lifts, the roads carved out of the mountain, which all appear on the verge of collapse. For all of our bravado, for all of our Tower of Babels, all it requires is an Act of God—or as Östlund even more cynically suggests, the perception of an Act of God—for it all to crumble to pieces.