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July 8, 2015
The Reunion is a rather confused work and a one-dimensional piece of filmmaking to boot. It marks Swedish artist Anna Odell’s directorial debut, and, as with her controversial 2009 performance work in which she faked a psychiatric breakdown based on a real episode she’d suffered previously, it is about her life. In this case, having been bullied for many years at school.
We start with a tracking shot of an empty school corridor, a visual motif that returns later to bookend this two-act play. It’s a technique often used to suggest menace or suspense but here the corridors are clean and painted pleasant colours – there is no sense of dread. It’s a suitable symbol for a film that identifies itself as confrontational but actually plays it remarkably safe.
The set-up is that Odell goes to her twenty-year school reunion and whilst there addresses those who tormented her with violent and quite funny results. (Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 masterpiece, Festen, inevitably comes to mind, which can’t help any film that isn’t a masterwork in its own right.)
Then there is a distinct break and it is revealed that what we have just seen was fiction; that everyone was an actor but Odell. In real life she was not invited to the school reunion. The second half, entitled ‘The Meetings’ is dedicated to finding the real protagonists and showing them the piece to see what they make of it. Naturally it’s intended to be pretty uncomfortable viewing.
There is a lot of potential here, a chance to explore versions of truth, cinematic fantasy and the lies we all tell ourselves – victim and bully alike. Instead, if anything, the film is an unintentional study in control. But the real conflict of the film is not between fiction and reality, bullies and the bullied, it is within Odell herself.
Few define themselves by grubby acts of social cruelty, but we’ve all been guilty at some point. Chances are though we only memorialize the things that make up our own story: when someone pushed us, or the teacher put us down, or the person we fancied rejected us.
Odell, however, is neither interested in anyone else’s version nor able to admit that what she really wants to do is bully her former classmates into submission and admission. Perhaps therapy has made her too controlled in her dealings with the past: useful in life, but not in drama. Whether it’s the wildest fantasy or the straightest most fact-checked documentary, cinema must be understood in terms of emotion.
And that’s the problem, she represses hers; despite being in every scene of the entire film, Odell never shows up and functions like a bad actor on-screen. Whilst expecting openness and honesty from her former rather shamefaced classmates, she’s unwilling to reveal anything of herself. The result is a rather anodyne affair that doesn’t tackle Anna’s rage or the complex reasons why humans behave as they do.
The Reunion aims to be a study of the cruelty of social hierarchies and our need to belong, but instead feels like a long-winded statement telling us that her former tormentors are as self-deluded and unpleasant as they were as kids.
Whilst we can all sympathize with Odell’s desire – who doesn’t dream of telling those who have hurt us just what we think? – her one-sided approach ultimately cuts us off and the film ends up talking only to itself.
The Reunion is released in UK cinemas on July 10th