This year at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or (the highest prize selected by the festival’s organizing committee) was awarded to Triangle of Sadness from Swedish director Ruben Östlund; the film is a satire of class conflict that fuses mordant comedy with trenchant sociological underpinnings. Östlund’s oeuvre dissects patterns of social behavior through realist moral tales set in present-day Sweden. Though the material he probes is particularly resonant and urgent among those familiar with Swedish sociopolitics and mores, the verities communicated through these stories speak to unsavory patterns of human behavior that are traceable in every facet of the modern epoch. Triangle of Sadness and his previous feature film The Square (2017), another Palme d’Or winner, complicate the caustic parables of social drama with a penetrating absurdity that strains the applicability of his label as a ‘realist filmmaker’ and thwarts any attempt to consign his work to any pre-established generic bin. Östlund’s spectacular and absurdist recent work has certainly garnered global attention, yet it is through his earlier, more mundane projects that the impetus of his filmmaking is stripped to its core sociological function — his debut feature film Guitar Mongoloid (2004) is exemplary. As a fledgling filmmaker, Östlund probes the same material of his later career while traversing entirely different formal territory, intentionally obscuring the precarious boundary between observational and fictive portrayals of reality.
Guitar Mongoloid is a pseudo-documentarian anthology of non-actors who transgress the boundaries of civil society: a foul-mouthed child with a pension for busking who forms a sordid fatherly connection with a questionable older man, a group of anarchic teens who set off every night to inflict their violent urges on unattended bikes, a delusional older woman adrift in the urban landscape in search of her stolen bicycle, motorcycle gang members with an intimate fascination with their own mortality, and other social mavericks who, deliberately or not, aren’t beholden to the social governance of conformity. Similar to the practice of another sociological filmmaker, Michael Haneke, Östlund uses locked-off, static long shots that serve to present the situations of these characters with an aloof detachment. The lack of emotionally charged camera positions or movements bolsters the audience’s ability to identify these people as authentically living through the daily existence of their lives rather than being staged in a narrative. This uncommon cinematic candor allows for interpretation of these people and their decisions to occur without the guidance of emotional cues and dramatic beats that impose themselves on the audience. The various subnarratives are braided together by the unifying motifs of unease, displacement, and detachment, which together communicate that these men and women are products of a society that cannot and will not accommodate them. It becomes poignantly clear, as mechanisms that propel these outcasts are better understood over the course of the film, that madness may be a product of the rational world, not a digression from it.
Östlund’s next major project Involuntary operates as a counterpart to Guitar Mongoloid, now taking a scalpel to the behavioral oddities of those situated within the walls of social conformity. Another anthology, Involuntary tracks five different vignettes of misbehavior and indiscretion that explore the social codes of public morality. Instead of finding the hidden logic within the lives of those deemed inept or inane as in Guitar Mongoloid, this film locates patterns of insanity and absurdity in daily life that are socially coded as unsurprising or expected. These stories unravel standards of masculinity, accountability, and peer pressure that compel the viewer to interrogate their own reactions to increasingly uncomfortable scenarios. Östlund also avoids an explicit moral destination, instead allowing the causal chain of events to unfold unburdened by didactics. The aforementioned techniques that enunciate moral subjectivity prompt the viewer to reappraise the tenability of our naturalized social codes, and moreover consider the dubious motives for upholding said codes.
Between these two films there is a nuanced anthropological study of the invisible structures that govern our thoughts and actions. Guitar Mongoloid demonstrates the departures from normalcy when someone is not affected by social pressure, and inversely Involuntary examines instances in which social pressure overrides individual agency. Together these films relate the codependency of individualism and collectivism, and through each dilemma faced by a character, the audience’s own experiences of shame, insecurity and uncertainty arise and overwhelm. As much as the viewer can abhor the decisions that fuel the discomfort of these stories, one must understand the context of the situations create the behavior, which itself is informed by a constellation of customs and procedures that have as much of a hand in decision-making as an internal moral compass. Despite the baseness of world Östlund captures, these are eminently humanistic and forgiving films that aim that treat the uglier proclivities of modern society with direct attention; these movies do not shirk from identifying our ugliest predispositions and baldly questioning why we are adherent to them. And more often than not, that question can’t be answered.