The Reunion (Atertraffen): Venice Review

Venice: The Reunion - H 2013
Jonas Jörneberg, French Quarter Film
Headline-making provocateur's eagerly-awaited feature debut is a frustratingly missed opportunity.    

Controversial Swedish artist Anna Odell plays herself in her debut feature, a drama premiering at the Lido festival.

VENICE -- Having stoked such sensation in her native Sweden with her conceptual art provocations, Anna Odell now makes a disappointingly flat transition to cinema with The Reunion (Atertraffen). Starring Odell herself as a provocative Swedish conceptual-artist-turned-filmmaker named Anna Odell, this two-part study of ostracism, bullying and the transgression of social norms looks a safe bet to soar at box offices in Scandinavian countries where her fame is strongest -- the Swedish release is set for Nov. 15.

Prospects elsewhere are much dicier for a project whose multi-layered cleverness dampens the spark of potentially dynamite material. But there are enough talking points here to portend a reasonably healthy festival career following its Venice bow, where it won FIPRESCI's prize for best debut film in the Orizzonti and International Critics' Week sections.

Thanks to the Internet, school reunions have become firmly established a familiar part of the social landscape in many countries, and Odell's picture begins with a truly catastrophic example of how such gatherings can go awry. In scenes which reminiscent of Thomas Vinterberg's modern classic The Celebration (Festen), a 20-years-later party at a fancy hotel quickly turns sour when perpetual "outsider" Anna unleashes a torrent of traumatic memories and bitter accusations.

Culminating in her messily violent ejection from the premises, this sequence (introduced as "Part One: The Speech") is, at around the 50-minute, mark revealed to actually be a film-within-a-film. In "Part Two: The Meetings," this short film's writer-director -- Odell now playing a rather more level-headed version of herself -- tries to show her work to the individuals upon whom the characters are directly based. She receives a wide range of reactions to her faux-naive entreaties and enquiries, with a couple of her peers (understandably) reluctant to even return her calls.

If Odell really wanted to blur the boundaries of fiction and reality, she should surely have made this second half of The Reunion a "straight" documentary and elicited input from her former schoolmates. Instead, this a fictional film about the making of a fictional art project, and only those already aware of Odell's career, methods and concerns are likely to find the results of more than passing interest.

It's all pretty small beer compared with the national furore stoked by Odell's 2009 university graduation-project Unknown Woman 2009-349701 in which she staged a fake suicide attempt on a city bridge and was confined to a psychiatric ward before owning up to the artistic nature of her actions. This led to a court case and a small fine for Odell, but it also made her a household name almost overnight, sparking an anguished debate on the treatment of the mentally ill in a country horrified by the recent "explosion" in psychiatric cases.

The idea of nasty skeletons rattling around in Scandinavia's immaculate pale-wood closets is now a familiar one to international readers and viewers, of course, most obviously in the form of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its many imitators. But Odell's investigation of how Sweden (mis-)treats naysayers, non-conformists and troublemakers doesn't throw up any fresh insights, and if anything the ambitious structure of The Reunion, a consistently slick and sleek production on the technical side, ultimately comes across as more narcissistic than analytical.

Given the nature of conceptual art, however, Odell may well regard all reactions to the picture as just as much a part of the "work" as the movie itself -- even if those reactions end up being, in most quarters, nothing more than shrugged-shoulder indifference.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (International Critics' Week)
Production company: French Quarter Film
Cast: Anna Odell, Anders Berg, Robert Fransson, Sandra Andreis, Rikard Svensson, Niklas Engdahl, Sanna Krepper
Director / Screenwriter: Anna Odell
Producer: Mathilde Dedye
Executive producers: Matthias Sandstrom
Director of photography: Ragna Jorming
Production designers: Madeleine Norling, Eva Torsvall
Costume designer: Madeleine Norling
Editor: Kristin Grundström
Music: Stefan Levin
Sales: French Quarter Film, Stockholm
No MPAA rating, 89 minutes