A studied behavioral experiment gets the lush cinematic treatment in Ruben Östlund’s icy, darkly funny “Force Majeure”

Written by Daniel Spada

Force Majeure [Turist] (dir. Ruben Östlund, 2014)

Seen at Hamptons International Film Festival on 10/10/14

US (limited) theatrical release: 10/24/14

An avalanche – a visual spectacle most of us are unlikely to see throughout the course of our lives, depending on our fondness of the slopes and our class position. This spectacle acts as the inciting incident of Ruben Östlund’s fourth feature, Force Majeure, collapsing the family unit at the center of the film and leaving some very emotionally unstable “adults” in its wake. The avalanche dually serves as a metaphor for the bourgeois Swedish couple’s matrimonial meltdown and the effortless challenging of gender roles’ basic foundation (not lack thereof per-se, but situatedness). Filled with credible performances and well drawn characters, especially the supporting ones, Östlund’s ideological inquiry is bolstered by an obsessive, formalist attention to detail – frames filled with etched-in meaning and musical cues used to jarringly effective ends.

We understand Tomas as a well-to-do, distracted, work-obsessed father from the first few scenes, in which he sneakily checks his iPhone in bed, and his wife Ebba tells her friend Charlotte at the lodge that they’re there on vacation because Tomas has been working so much. “So now he has five days to focus on his family,” she says. This, however, makes him no more or less an empathetic character. The scene that definitively rules him out as an empathetic character is the one in which, on Day 2, while having lunch with his family at a restaurant overlooking the slopes and reassuring them that the cascading snow they’re seeing is controlled, he sprints away to his safety (not without said precious iPhone), leaving Ebba to wrangle up the distressed kids all by herself.

The pressures of hetero-monogamous familial relationships hang heavy in the French Alps air, as Ebba persistently attempts to figure out her husband’s insistence on their two self-professed differing perspectives regarding the incident. At one point during a dinner with Charlotte and her English-speaking date, he offers the absurd rationale of not being about to run in ski boots. Östlund very cleverly holds the long shot of the both of them for several seconds past the point of excruciating embarrassment when Ebba repeats what he said to the couple. Ebba’s entirely believable patent disbelief and Tomas’ authentic humiliation and discomfort underscore the impressiveness of both Lisa Loven Kongsli and Johannes Bah Kuhnke’s performances.

In a later, private moment between Ebba and Charlotte, Ebba’s dissatisfaction with her current situation hits a peak when she inquires about Charlotte’s sexual escapades (it is important to note that she does have a husband and children). Charlotte’s questioning and challenging of the foundation of human sexual norms is cut and dry. Ebba’s response, however, is not. Her anger is paired with nothing if not a distinct curiosity about Charlotte’s line of thinking (and self-professed actual lived way of life), which regardless of whether it is a put on air or not, deeply rattles Ebba. Ebba is not let off the hook, as she is depicted as a bit jealous of Charlotte’s disposition, but also neither is Charlotte. Her nonchalance is undercut by hypotheticals, the answers to which it is possible even she is unsure although she speaks with certainty.

A key moment comes along after Ebba persists in telling the story, once again, to an old friend of Tomas, Mats, and his girlfriend Fanny. The tension rises as Ebba becomes increasingly emotional about what it means that Tomas ran for his life, and Mats and his girlfriend get more uncomfortable over time. Eventually, Mats begins a tepid but clear defense of Tomas and Fanny comes to Ebba’s comfort (it is unclear about whether Mats actually believes the absurdity that he speaks or just feels bad for Tomas, attesting to the power of Kristofer Hivju’s supporting performance). Fanny then proceeds to tell Mats that she doesn’t think Mats would save their children in a hypothetical situation, while an older generation of men would have come to the aid of their spouses. Fanny understands the changing nature of gender norms and masculinities, just like the genesis of the silly contemporary gendered attachment to such colors as blue and pink, while Mats is overwhelmed by her apparent lack of belief in his ideal masculinity and paternal instinct.

In one of the most entertaining sequences of the film, Tomas and Mats are relaxing on beach loungers and drinking beers after a tough day of skiing during which Mats attempts to purge Tomas’ guilt and shame by making him yell into the snowy void. Electronic dance music playing in the background, Mats encounters a younger woman who tells him her friend thinks Tomas is attractive. A short while later, she returns to recant her statement, saying that she meant someone else. Mats’ initial reaction is disbelief – he thinks they’re kidding around – and then anger, while Tomas stays laying in his chair, clearly a little embarrassed about the mix up. The two of them then proceed to laugh it off, which is what the audience has been doing all along.

In what seemed like a tidy way to end the film, the second-to-last scene offers Tomas a chance at temporary redemption. While an open ending at once seemed likely, the viewer is slammed with an ending that calls for an overall deeper examination into how this vacation has affected everyone involved. Not to offset the serious philosophic base of the film, Östlund’s finely spun yarn is undercut with amusing and humorous visual gags – a child’s toy comes crashing into a serious conversation, while a judgemental janitor appears out of thin air at the most untimely moments. Vivaldi’s “Summer”, used to emphasize the chaos and disorder of the family’s post-avalanche scare state parallels well with the crisp, uniform images of the ski slopes being prepared daily, attracting our attention to man’s need to control nature. When the avalanche hits on Day 2, it almost feels too real, and though we haven’t really been given enough time to invest in these characters, I felt like running for my life, not unlike Tomas. What is certain, though, is that the professional photographs they had taken on Day 1 certainly don’t reflect who they are as people now.

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