Few filmmakers can depict awkward social occasions with the excruciating accuracy of the Swedish director Ruben Östlund. A retrospective, “In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund,” screens at the Museum of Fine Arts Wednesday through Saturday.
In his most recent film, the Oscar shortlisted “Force Majeure” (2014), which screens Thursday, the pivotal moment of an avalanche and the responses of individuals in the face of imminent death stand out as the most spectacular and absurd scene. But subsequent, more prolonged sequences, in which a woman gets drunk and accusatory during soirees with friends, tormenting her husband and the guests and the audience in equal measure, evoke just as much squeamish fascination and uncomfortable laughter.
As can be seen throughout the retrospective, these two themes — the helplessness of human beings before the natural forces raging both without and within, and the fecklessness of civilized rituals and interactions in dealing with them — shape Östlund’s films.
His shorts distill these issues and also epitomize his basic techniques: prolonged takes of carefully orchestrated scenes, many in extreme long-shot with action beginning off-screen and spilling into the frame, and abrupt editing employing suspenseful ellipses. The method evokes bemusement and occasional horror at the folly of mere mortals, and a dismaying recognition of one’s own frail humanity.
In the nine-minute “Autobiographical Scene Number 6882” (2005), which screens Thursday and Saturday, a small group of young men and women in various stages of intoxication gather on a bridge spanning an ocean strait. Seen from a distance, they look like insects suspended in a void, their voices tiny and shrill. One of the guys climbs up on the railing to show that he is up to jumping into the water about 100 feet below.
The putt-putts of a scooter (in Östlund’s films machines seem as ridiculous as the people who use them) sound off screen and the elderly man driving it appears, sternly warning the revelers that a Norwegian once tried that stunt and killed himself. After lecturing them on their foolishness, he putt-putts away.
The group begins to disperse, but an argument develops. The would-be jumper insists he isn’t scared. Others say there’s no reason not to admit your fear. Finally, the jumper marches back up the bridge determined to accomplish what he came for.
“Autobiographical Scene” prefigures the contrast between the puniness of human beings and the immensity of nature seen in “Force Majeure” and other films. It also introduces Östlund’s preoccupation with fear, intimidation, bravado, and cowardice and how propriety confronts fight-or-flight instincts with sad, sardonic consequences.
In the 10-minute “Incident by the Bank” (2009), which screens Wednesday and Saturday, Östlund achieves a near-perfect expression of his style and obsessions.
In one shot taken from a distant exterior vantage point, a real-life, inept bank robbery unfolds, meticulously orchestrated with dozens of characters entering and exiting the frame, featuring felons as inept (their getaway vehicle is a moped) as the witnesses are apathetic, cringing, or pitifully officious.
Extending these themes and methods to feature length, Östlund often weaves together several seemingly disconnected story lines. “Involuntary” (2008), which screens Wednesday and Saturday, follows three scenarios: a group of childhood buddies celebrating at a summer house; a pair of precocious and incautious teenage girls pushing their luck with strangers; and a mousy, moralistic schoolteacher who, witnessing an abuse of power by one of her colleagues, is caught between maintaining her status in the group and her righteousness. Unlike similar films by Alejandro Iñárritu or Paul Haggis, the stories do not resolve with a contrived serendipity. Instead, they compose a fugue on the themes of primitive drives, civilized mores, and self-righteous authoritarianism.
All of Östlund’s films provoke a squirmy discomfort, none more so than “Play” (2011), which screens Wednesday and Friday, especially given recent events in the United States involving racial stereotyping and its lethal consequences.
It opens with the signature one-take long shot, here of a busy mall with crowds passing in front of the camera. The voices of two boys are heard. They enter the frame and argue about lost money, a premonition of bad things to come.
The camera pans to a group of five African teenagers, apparently plotting something. They assign roles through a variation of the rock-paper-scissors game, chanting he words “Zig! Zag! Zug!” (This chant will recur, off-screen and barely audible, to chilling effect.) Moments later, two of the black youths are asking the two younger white boys what time it is.
The five immigrant kids have developed a subtle con game, in which they involve their victims in marginally normal social interactions, push the limits of acceptability, and then accuse them of intolerance, wimpiness, and impoliteness. Two assume “good cop” and “bad cop” roles and eventually they shake down the sheep-like white kids.
The perpetrators play the game more for the thrill than the loot. Their heists devolve into a sadistic kidnapping reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” though the violence here is all psychological.
Along with the suggestion of racial stereotyping, the passivity of the victims is provoking. Why don’t they fight back or call for help? Instead they struggle to maintain the appearance of normalcy. When that façade drops, the response is usually brutal and misdirected.
Much the same happens in another Scandinavian film, “The Hunt,” by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, in which a likable nursery school teacher is falsely accused of child abuse. There, too, the rules of civilized society are eventually complicit in the irrationality that gradually takes over.
Unlike most of Östlund’s previous films, “Play” offers little tension-relieving humor — only a parallel story involving a befuddled train crew trying to deal with an errant, obstructing cradle.
The two stories ultimately intersect, providing a bitter, ironic twist. In the end, as T. S. Eliot said, “neither fear nor courage saves us.” There are no heroes or victims, only inexorable systems, social and natural, that crush the soul.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.