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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Peter Strickland’s “The Duke of Burgundy” (2014)

By Colleen Rowe

It looks as if colored oils are being splashed and organized into figures on canvas before your eyes. Director Peter Strickland’s full-length Drama, The Duke of Burgundy (2014), is like a homoerotic Baroque painting, with its two female leads, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna, dominating the screen in separate, but conjoined spheres. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is Evelyn’s (Chiara D’Anna) employer, but their relationship escalates quickly with a peer through a doorknob’s keyhole. Looking in from the outside, Evelyn peers into her ruler’s world: Cynthia’s matured body in lingerie as she undresses in unassuming privacy. Does she know that Evelyn is watching her as her dress slips from her waist, down her thighs…and falls upon the floor like a splash of flowing ink?

And so, the ink dries and the women continue with their master-servant relationship. Cynthia orders young Evelyn to do her bidding, which includes cleaning her boots vigorously, her eyebrows raised almost as high as her expectations. Cynthia’s impatience grips Evelyn forcefully, pushing her into seemingly torturous punishments—at first these inflictions are usually unseen, initially; the bathroom door is closed and there are gurgling sounds of a mouth full of water, Evelyn is choking, sputtering…but somehow loving every single moment of it. If the master had been a man, these interactions would have been looked upon with disgust, and people would shake their heads slightly with immense disdain for the abuser. But, as an attractive, mature woman perpetuating the servant’s liking for her punishments, the audience seemed intrigued, and turned on to understanding the parallel roles that are expected of women. Are these expectations acceptable to condone? Of course not, but they are there.

A male “master” can be more frightening to a woman, because of the power men have tried to hold over women since written documentation was first recorded in the grand scheme of time. There is also the vast history of social inequality between men and women that really taints the filters of perspective while watching this film. In the past, women who were unrightfully enslaved were raped by their masters; an account of this was recorded in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by Harriet Jacobs, a true story of a young girl who struggled for equality in a world where her race and sex subjected her to the abuses she faced. Jacobs’ written work was influenced by Samuel Richardson’s famous novel, Pamela, also known as Virtue Rewarded. Pamela is a tale with dense misogynistic undertones and a plot that circulates around a male master who follows, confines, and stalks his servant until she finally succumbs to his rule and has sexual relations with him. Yes, her virtue is rewarded in the end. Let us make it clear that any forced sexual relations are abusive, even if they are “achieved” by manipulation.

A woman ordering another woman to do something is more comfortable, simply on the level of an employer/employee relationship, but one should not assume this is the reason why Cynthia’s inflictions against Evelyn, as they pursue a more personal relationship, are somewhat condoned by viewer reactions. It’s because they love each other, and that’s where gender or sex is stripped of relevance here. These two people love each other, and if the master had been a man, in the context that they truly care for each other, the accepted “abuse” would seem less horrible because Evelyn is constantly begging Cynthia to “punish” her. Evelyn, at one point, asks Cynthia to lock her in a chest that is large enough to hold her small frame. Cynthia allows it, but, she is concerned for Evelyn soon after, asking her to come back into the bed. Evelyn proceeds to tell her to leave her in the chest, as if she is enjoying her opaque cage. Cynthia eventually enters a dreamlike state, where she seems to imagine that she opens the chest and all that is left is Evelyn’s rotted skeleton, lying in the same position that Cynthia left her in. This scene is comparable to William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” in which the character, Emily Grierson, is found out to have been sleeping beside her dead lover for decades, after a single strand of her hair is found on the pillow beside his skeleton. Morosely similar, The Duke of Burgundy uniquely portrays this implied necrophilia in a series of frames that demonstrate a transient passage of time. With shots focused on a clothed female crotch, delving into all-encompassing darkness, and Cynthia’s venture into the woods to metaphorically revive her skeletal lover, lifting her from the chest that has become her casket, they are swallowed into the darkness together.

There are two scenes that are brilliantly paired in The Duke of Burgundy; one takes place at the beginning, where Cynthia reprimands Evelyn for incorrectly washing and tending to her clothing. Cynthia is the master here, her deadpan glare ripping into Evelyn’s timid demeanor with disrespectful loathing. A flicker of hate for Cynthia might rise in your chest, temporarily, during this scene. Her pretentious, lifeless glare is captivating, and you sort of feel like she owns you, too. In a later scene that parallels this, after the relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia has been established through playful, loving nights as they sleep beside one another, and Evelyn’s obsession with gaining new items and wealth becomes a dominant factor, disrupting their connection, the roles are reversed. Evelyn, the now master reprimands Cynthia, the previously glaring, dominant force within the film, and the woman you once hated, becomes the woman you now feel sorry for. With the dialogue and setting matching the earlier scene, Evelyn’s manipulations to rise above her social class have now succeeded, and as Cynthia cries, Evelyn reaches for her, as Cynthia once did, and whispers to her soothingly.

With profound directing, cinematography, acting, and editing leading this film into the depths of greatness, it’s almost impossible to look away as the storyline progresses and you watch the character development escalate.

This film is a work of art. However you paint the picture, after viewing The Duke of Burgundy, you will find your mind to be a color so incomprehensible that you won’t be able to forget what your eyes were just captivated by.

The Duke of Burgundy was a part of the Hamptons International Film Festival 2014 program.

THE GRID: ZOMBIE OUTLET MAUL

Film Syrup’s team posed as spin-offs of the characters from Filmmaker, Linda Andersson’s new animated film, “THE GRID: ZOMBIE OUTLET MAUL.”
FS asked Linda what caused her to make this film.
Linda responded: “I am a writer in Hollywood, who has decided not to wait to be chosen by the powers that be to get my work on the screen. Although, I’ve produced several of my other works, and sold and had other scripts produced by other companies, I felt that the economy that we were in, at the time I dreamt up the world of the Grid, was still in a stalled state and producers were only going to produce projects that were going to be a guarantee at the box office.”
Characters from Linda Andersson’s in-production animated film THE GRID: ZOMBIE OUTLET MAUL:
the-grid-3
After seeing the characters, Film Syrup wanted to know more. Who wouldn’t?
Linda Andersson explained, “Once I saw that a light switch is a nose, and plugs and outlets have faces, there was no turning back. The characters pretty much presented themselves to me. Their names were obvious. Shamus Plug is a sleazeball band manager. Auto d’Fuse has a very short fuse. Mega Watts has a big brain in that bulbous head of hers, but has an illogical weakness for Shamus. The characters have almost human lives, so their struggles are no different from ours, except for the fact that they are electricals. So, coming up with a story for them wasn’t very difficult.”
Film Syrup chose to recreate this scene, with the main focus on “Remo” and “Auto d’Fuse,” as they have a conversation at the bar, Auto obviously stressed after a long day of bar banter and pouring beers, with “Shamus Plug” and “JukeBox Hero” in the background, having a chat.

THE GRID SCENE 1 TAKE 1 Remo listens as Auto d’Fuse goes on to say “Chivalry’s dead!” and to explain his take on men pulling out stools for people, specifically women. THE GRID SCENE 1 TAKE 2 Obviously Remo is shocked by Auto’s negative attitude. THE GRID SCENE 1 TAKE 4 Auto then offers Remo some peanuts, which he denies. I wonder why? Maybe the clip “HOT NUTS” can spell it out for you! THE GRID SCENE 1 TAKE 3

“HOT NUTS” from “THE GRID…”:
For this next scene, we improvised a bit. We attempted to play along with the plotline without giving away too many details. Here, “Mega Watts” and “Hazel Switch” are at their band practice in, presumably, Hazel’s garage, with “Jukebox Hero.”

the grid scene 2 take 1 “Creative Outlet” shows up to Switch Hazel’s (the name of their band) practice, bringing along her friend “Disco Lucille Ball,” who is always whining. I mean, if I was a disco ball with orange hair, I’d probably feel a bit resentful, too. the grid scene 2 take 2 Film Syrup imagined that in the middle of their band practice, a loud noise would erupt. The only one who seems especially concerned is “Creative Outlet,” while her bandmates laugh at her slightly. the grid scene 2 take 3 “Creative Outlet” quickly closes the garage door, fearing for the threat of the undead, who might threaten to suppress the electricals into burnt fuses. the grid scene 2 take 4 When a strange figure arrives, the band members of Switch Hazel suddenly become extremely worried about this seemingly unstoppable foe. the grid scene 2 take 5 Time passes quickly, and it is unclear what exactly is happening inside the garage. the grid scene 2 take 6 Wait…, I think the door is opening… the grid scene 2 take 7

AND SWITCH HAZEL IS READY FOR WAR, ZOMBIES!

the grid scene 2 take 8

But there’s also a strong possibility that it might have just been their band manager, Shamus Plug, lurking around in the shadows.

Switch Hazel has a show! It’s unclear whether “Shamus Plug” is particularly mad at them or if he is just extremely into the music. After a long day of offering peanuts to unaware electricals, Auto d’Fuse takes a break and enjoys the show. the grid scene 3 take 1 the grid scene 3 take 3 the grid scene 3 take 7 fini the grid scene 3 take 5 the grid scene 3 take 6 Film Syrup asked Linda Andersson what she wants to do with “THE GRID: ZOMBIE OUTLET MAUL” after its completion and release to the public. Linda Andersson: “It will be released as an internet movie, so people can watch it on the computers, tablets and mobile devices. Ultimately, I hope for it to be picked up as a 1/2 hour series. A cartoon for grown ups with storylines that people can relate to, and will hopefully get a charge out of.” If you’d like to see more of “The Grid…,” help Linda Andersson out: Great Perks!

The cast of Linda Andersson’s “THE GRID: ZOMBIE OUTLET MAUL” includes: “Shamus Plug,” to be voiced by Teri Maher. The bottle cap and peanuts guy, Auto d’Fuse, to be voiced by MJ Lallo, “Creative Outlet” and “Disco Lucille Ball.” voiced by Deborah Stewart, “Mega Watts,” voiced by Linda Andersson. Leah Cevoli from Robot Chicken will voice Sgt. Filament (not pictured here). Thea Gill from Queer as Folk will voice Hazel Switch (bass player in the band). Garet Carson will voice Jukebox Hero. The voice for Remo (the remote control) hasn’t be cast yet.
Film Syrup character recreations & crew:
Hazel Switch: Roxanne Pfaus
Creative Outlet: Colleen Rowe
Mega Watts: Sarina Penza
Remo: Marcello Mannino
Auto d’Fuse: Phil Zorawski
Jukebox Hero: Jordan Danner
Shamus Plug: Suzanne O’Regan
Writer/Content Producer/Photo Editor: Colleen Rowe
Stylist/Costume Design: Roxanne Pfaus
Creative Director: Sarina Penza
Asst. Costume Design: Paige Skelly
Assistants: Suzanne O’Regan & Grace McGovern
Photographers: Marcello Mannino & Yvonne Passaro
Featured Image photographer: Jordan Danner

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”: the tragedy of a profession

By Jordan Danner

Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler tells the story of professional wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), as he attempts to get both his career and life back together.

Like many children of the 1980s and 1990s, I grew up watching the many larger than life characters found in the World Wrestling Federation. The exaggerated violence, the cartoony gimmicks, the “ballet for boys” choreography and other aspects kept me watching every week hoping that the babyface (good guy) would get revenge on the heel (bad guy). The release of The Wrestler happened to come out at a time when the media was shining a light on the dark side of the business. The real-life events of Eddie Guerrero’s death of a heart attack due to a history of drug use and the physical toll of the sport, along with the tragic double murder-suicide of Chris Benoit and his family, attributed to a mix of dementia caused by many years of head injuries and steroid abuse. These issues were all over the news at a time when investigation of steroids in baseball and concussions in football were also being reported.

As the film starts, we are introduced to a photo montage of wrestling magazines, posters and newspaper headlines showing the glory days of Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s career in the 1980s as he feuded with The Ayatollah (wrestler Ernest “The Cat” Miller), reminiscent of Hulk Hogan’s feud with The Iron Sheik. We then flash to the present day and see an aging and broke Randy, dependent on painkillers and steroids to continue wrestling for meager wages as a special attraction at independent shows, while working at a grocery store to make ends meet. This is still not enough to keep him from getting locked out of his trailer for being late on rent.

Despite his hardships, Randy is still a gentle giant that always maintains his sense of humor as he play fights with the children in his trailer park and attempts to court a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who encourages him to reunite with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). After suffering a heart attack in the ring, Randy is urged by a doctor to retire from wrestling, warning him that his next match may be his last. Randy reluctantly decides to give up on wrestling and work full-time at the grocery store until a promoter tempts him with the offer of participating in a big rematch with The Ayatollah to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their match. Randy decides to ignore the doctor’s orders and pleas from Cassidy and sees this as his one chance to get back on top as the one addiction he has more than the drugs. This is the rush he receives from the fans in the ring.

Aside from Hulk Hogan, one may also see a parallel with the life of wrester Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Roberts was also one of the most beloved wrestlers of the 80s, but descended into a life of extra-marital affairs, alcoholism and crack addiction, with similar appearances at fan conventions and occasional matches in high school gymnasiums as his only form of income. Roberts’ own issues, including with his daughter are shown in detail in Barry W. Blaustein’s 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat, for those that would like more of a back story.

Aronofsky chose to pay great attention to detail in this film, with the business itself. The backstage jargon of the industry is kept as a cast of real-life wrestlers’ (including WWE’s Antonio Cesaro and R-Truth) dialog is improvised and discusses the goings-on of the event and how they plan to choreograph their matches beforehand, along with the unfortunate realization of how little the financial turnout of the event was. Wrestlers such as Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper even applauded the story and Rourke’s performance, with Piper talking of crying after seeing the film and saying how their story had finally been told. The biggest surprise of this was the approval of Vince McMahon, chairman of the WWE and one known for shying away from controversy in the past after both a steroid and sexual harassment scandal almost lead to the folding of the company in the early 1990s.

I find this to be an interesting entry and one of my favorites in Aronofsky’s filmography, when compared to other films such as Pi (1998) and The Fountain (2006). Despite this film being about professional wrestling, it succeeds in not exclusively being a film for wrestling fans, much like Martin Scorsese’s The Raging Bull (1980), manages to tell a compelling story, regardless of your interest in boxing. Both films portray a story of what affect a life in the spotlight can have on one’s personal life, an affect which all too often has resulted in tragedy.