Swedish director Ruben Östlund made his feature debut, The Guitar Mongoloid (Gitarrmongot), in 2004, before going on to greater success with Force Majeure (2014), which was nominated for best foreign-language film at the 2015 Golden Globes, and The Square (2017), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
The Guitar Mongoloid doesn’t have a usual story arc. Instead, it presents characters interacting in scenes that have only the slightest connection to each other. Östlund’s aim is to present a panoramic view of the lives of those who are on the fringes of society in the fictional Swedish city of Jöteburg, which is analogous to the director’s home city of Göteberg, a place well known for its film festival.
Although it plays like a documentary – albeit a beautifully composed, well-lit and neatly performed one – it’s actually a feature film. Instead of referring to it as a mockumentary, Östlund calls The Guitar Mongoloid the world’s first pseudo-documentary, noting that the characters play themselves in front of the camera, even though they are acting.
The film features various people larking around in groups, chatting about nothing much, and engaging in urban adventures to relieve the boredom of their lives. The titular character is a young Down’s syndrome boy who busks punk rock on an acoustic guitar. Others include a group of young men who steal bicycles for fun, a sports team who give Nazi salutes as a joke, and three drunken types who talk about playing Russian roulette with a pistol that may or may not be loaded.
Scenes run for some time, allowing the viewer to become engrossed in the conversations. The film plays out through the various scenarios until reaching an open, inconclusive ending. The movie could have ended up like a bad student film had it not been executed so well: the cinematography is pristine and perfectly shaped, editing is tight and the film jogs along much better than you’d expect.
Even the amateur actors do a great job. Form fits content – Östlund’s point is that life does not really progress or follow a set schema – instead, it’s usually about finding activities to break the boredom that stretches out into the future. Aside from the scenes of Russian roulette, many of the pranks and eccentric chats are typical of post-pub messing around in Northern Europe and Scandinavia.
Östlund made a name for himself shooting skiing documentaries, and that approach is evident here. The camera never engages the actors; it simply observes them from a distance, usually without moving. The director has said that the idea for separate scenes was the result of a dislike of the standard Hollywood structure.
The Guitar Mongoloid will be screened, with English subtitles, on March 10 and 18 at Broadway Cinematheque, in Yau Ma Tei, and on March 17 at Movie Movie Cityplaza, in Taikoo Shing, as part of Mästare of Awkwardness: Ruben Östlund programme.