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"In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund" 

Wednesday, Feb 11 2015
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Before his formally arty, festival-friendly narratives, Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund made ski films, which seems like a good foundation for evolving one's point of view on bourgeois behaviorism and ironic male arrogance. Östlund sure knows his way around the slopes in his newest film Force Majeure, which expertly presents alpine whiteout conditions as a vessel for deep-black comedy. Here is a brilliant film about a marital reckoning, and about staring into the void — however pillowy and serene it may at first appear to be. Starting up with a pair of Force Majeure screenings perhaps strategically scheduled on either side of Valentine's Day, this month's highly recommended retrospective at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts reveals the career progress through which sad-funny failures of manliness have become an Östlund specialty. Among other things, it reminds us that 10 years ago he made a short called Autobiographical Scene Number 6882, in which a guy tries to impress his friends by jumping off a bridge. Since then the filmmaker seems to have developed a sophisticated internet-age understanding of how social pressure and attention dissipation have combined into some subtle evil superforce that may be driving us all insane. Östlund's framings tend to keep some distance, but his curiosity is inherently sympathetic. Time and again he finds an electrifying dissonance between tableau choreography and the vagaries of free will. Characters — superbly cast, directly familiar — often tie themselves in knots of self-incrimination, which we're free (or captive) to observe by way of long, disconcertingly static takes. That is, the camera often stays still, but the scene doesn't, necessarily; several Östlund set pieces, in several films, transpire inside moving vehicles. Fittingly, the opening shot of 2008's Involuntary is the front-facing view through the windshield of what we come to realize is a rushing ambulance. It seems equally fitting that "In Case of No Emergency" should be the title of an Östlund retrospective.

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Jonathan Kiefer

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SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.

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