Yesterday, we posted Jordan Cronk‘s piece on In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund, a retrospective that’s not only opening today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York but is also already underway at Cinefamily in Los Angeles. The series opens tomorrow at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, on Saturday at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, on January 23 at the Austin Film Society, on January 28 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, on February 5 at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle, on February 12 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and on March 26 at the Northwest Film Center in Portland and keeps on rolling through March.
“Winning A Certain Regard jury prize at Cannes last year, Force Majeure, in many respects the culmination of 40-year-old Östlund’s career to date, has brought the filmmaker international acclaim,” writes Michelle Orange in Film Comment. “His four features, four shorts, and in a way even the extreme skiing videos with which he started out form a strikingly coherent body of work. In their fascination with behavior, detached from but not without feeling for their subjects, Östlund’s films suggests a distinctly generational sensibility, one with an innate appreciation of the phenomenon, as epitomized by YouTube, by which our best and worst sides combine, to hugely watchable effect.”
“It may be early to mount a retro for the man—he’s 40,” grants Michael Atkinson in the LA Weekly. But his films “all deserve better exposure than they’ve gotten… Until this year, Östlund has not been a terribly marketable commodity—however subtle, Majeure represents a leap ahead toward commercial orthodoxy. It does employ, after all, ordinary shot-countershot close-ups…. The Guitar Mongoloid  is a quilt of moments, set-pieces and voyeuristic opportunities, building to no specific thematic idea… the movie’s like a genial if vice-obsessed Richard Scarry drawing of Stockholm, assembled from unblinking single shots that last for minutes and in which nothing at all could happen or chaos could erupt.”
“In all of his films, Mr. Östlund employs vehicles of transit—buses, trains, trams—as spaces for examining the power (or futility) of public surveillance,” writes Ben Kenigsberg in the New York Times. “Deep focus lets him capture multiple planes at once, showing actions and reactions in the same shot. These methods come into even fuller view in Play, which screened at the 2011 New York Film Festival. Inspired by news reports in Sweden, the film focuses on a group of black teenagers from immigrant families in Gothenburg. The boys have a recurring scam: Pretending that a sibling has lost a cellphone, they persuade kids from more affluent backgrounds to hand over theirs, getting their marks to comply with the robbery.”
“Involuntary  cuts between five separate stories,” writes Elise Nakhnikian at the House Next Door. “In one of the five, a sympathetic schoolteacher convinces a pupil to deny the evidence of her own eyes by enlisting the rest of the class in an experiment in which, shown two lines and asked which is shorter, they all pretend they think the shorter line is longer. After her correct answer is greeted with noisy and contemptuous disagreement twice in a row, she cautiously gives the wrong answer. The teacher asks, ‘Do you really think that line is shorter?’ To which the student admits that she doesn’t, but she thought that was what she was supposed to answer. That’s a neat encapsulation of the theme that intrigues Östlund, here and elsewhere: how our compulsion to construct and comply with an acceptable public face can make us act against our own instincts and self-interest—or make us fail to act at all.”
“Characters wander in and out of frame, and are often filmed for what can feel like an excessive amount of time,” writes Jessica Loudis at the L. “This forces viewers to look directly at things that might be uncomfortable—underage girls stripping for a webcam in Involuntary, black boys scamming white ones in Play—but it also sets up the tragicomic element of Östlund’s films.”
Updates, 1/15: “It’s possible—extremely possible—to determine that Play is simply racist, as it depicts a black gang robbing and tormenting fairer-skinned Swedes,” writes Scott Tobias at the Dissolve. “But Östlund’s agenda is more complicated, in that not all the bullies are equal participants (one bows out halfway through), the dynamic is as much class as race-based, and white perception of black teenagers figures strongly into the scheme’s effectiveness. In other words, there’s leverage to be gained from being feared irrationally. None of this absolves Östlund from criticism, but little about his work is simple-minded or cut-and-dried. His films marinate in viewer discomfort.”
Update, 1/19: “The proximity between Östlund’s ‘detached’ approach and surveillance camera mise-en-scène is made clear in his Golden Bear–winning 2009 short Incident by a Bank,” writes Nick Pinkerton in his piece on the retrospective for Artforum. “It reenacts a failed bank robbery which occurred in Stockholm in 2006, filmed in a single ten-minute shot, panning and scanning from a fixed position above street level, observing the reactions of passersby and participants. It’s the immediate precedent for the opening shot of Play (2011).”
“Counterintuitively,” writes Kimberley Jones in the Austin Chronicle, “what makes these movies so exciting is the impassive, impartial camera. Because the camera is static and frequently set back from (or awkwardly framing) the ‘action,’ there’s no forced identification with characters via close-ups or shared perspectives. Sometimes the camera rolls from so far away, faces are just fuzzy dots. All the better to hear the second-guessing, the subtle bullying. You can still spot the grand human muddle they’re in from a mile away.”
Update, 1/31: Zach Gayne interviews Östlund for Twitch.