Ruben Ostlund (b – 1974) is a Swedish filmmaker who has written and directed 3 feature films to date – Force Majeure (2014), Involuntary (2008) and Play (2011). His films have gained notoriety for their extremely long shot length and for their controversial content which, the Guardian’s Henry Barnes (Thursday 9 April 2015 15.16 BST), describes as being “nasty, funny dramas that deal in skewed self-image and challenge our presumptions of being rational and civilised.”
I was drawn to Ostlund’s work after seeing his latest film “Force Majure” (2014) (you can read the full Guardian review here) which charts the disintegration of a wealthy Swedish couple’s marriage during their vacation in a plush ski lodge. I was so impressed with the film, especially the nuanced performances he manages to capture from his cast and the slow ponderous way he uses the camera – which felt more akin to an instrument of analysis, unflinchingly scrutinising the psychologies of his suffering subjects.
After seeing “Force Majure” I was interested to know more about Ostlund and his approach to filmmaking which seemed to be distinctly different to that of the mainstream industry. Here is Ostlund talking about his motivating philosophy behind his films in an interview from filmmaker magazine. (The person he refers to in his comment being his long time production manager, Erik Hemmendorff.)
“We wanted to find a new way of expression that we thought other films were lacking. We also decided that if we have a film we are interested in, the production [schedule] should be made out of the content and not vice-versa. So often you have content, but then you just put it into the same production machinery as everything else, and what’s coming out of that production machinery in the end is quite similar to all the other films.
Here Ostlund seems to be articulating my own feelings about the generic nature of much of today’s film production machinery and the homogenising and standardising effect it has on most film content. He goes on to outline his concern with the overly mechanistic approach to filmmaking (which has distinct parallels to the quotes from my 2nd blog post and Bordwell and Dawson’s critique of standard Hollywood practice – which led him to develop a totally different approach to shooting schedule, “I don’t want to put all my time when it comes to moviemaking to moving the camera around. Most productions are like, “Oh, we have to move the camera, we have to go to another angle,” and you don’t even have time to concentrate on the image and what’s happening in front of the camera.”
What I find interesting in this comment is Ostlund’s realisation of the need to question common filmmaking practice, almost as if there is, built into standard processes, an unreflective and unconscious aspect to film production methods that unwittingly delimits creative potentialities. Here Ostlund again reiterates this concern as he talks about scriptwriting ‘conventions’, “I think one of the most boring things I know is to read scripts in American standard format.” … “I’d rather write in a more literary way, I guess, and really try to find out exactly what is interesting about the scene and try to highlight that. If there’s something that the characters are thinking about, I can write one page about what they are thinking just to try to get to know, what am I aiming for when I am shooting this scene?” Thinking about Ostlund’s comments are extremely enlightening and bring to mind an experience I had a few years ago when I read the script for Bruce Robinson’s “Withnail and I”(1998) . The one thing that shocked me about the script was how off-topic it strayed, even breaking the cardinal rule of scriptwriting by including jokes that only the reader of the script could be privy to and that were never intended for inclusion in the movie. Ostlund’s scripts are also non conventional as can be seen in his cartoon book version of the script for Morce Majure here .
To conclude then I would like to show a clip from one of Ostland’s earlier films called “Autobiographical Scene Number 6882” (2005) in which the film maker thwarts the obsession with editing and camera positioning, opting instead for a fixed camera position, wide depth of field and extremely long shot length which gives room for a style of ensemble acting more akin to Jean Renoir than to a film made this millennium.
Robinson, B. (1998). Withnail and I. Bloomsbury Publishing UK.