There seems to be a special relationship between two of Sweden’s currently internationally most renowned film directors. In an interview earlier this year, Ruben Östlund said, “Whenever I get a good shot, I usually send pictures to [Roy Andersson] and tell him ‘Beat this if you can, ha!'” Both directors were prepared to compete against each other in Cannes with their latest films, Force Majeure, and in Andersson’s case, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.
The latter never made the cut in Cannes, but the former did and won a minor prize in the Un Certain Regard category. Andersson retaliated gloriously by competing in Venice and taking home the main award, the Golden Lion. Still, there’s no doubt that Östlund deserves kudos for his efforts.
Skiing in the French Alps
A Swedish family are in the French Alps on a vacation. There’s Tomas and Ebba (Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli) and a boy and a girl (Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren). On the second day, they’re having lunch at a diner overlooking the mountains. Suddenly, they witness an avalanche shelling, a procedure where an avalanche is triggered by explosives in order to reduce the risk of uncontrolled avalanches. But the masses of snow come a little too close to the tourists in the diner and panic erupts. Ebba’s instinct is to turn to the kids and protect them. Tomas, on the other hand, grabs his ski gloves and iPhone and runs for his life.
When the snow smoke settles and everybody realizes that the avalanche never hit the actual diner, Tomas returns to his family. No one knows what to say; they all just sit down and finish their meal awkwardly. But the dynamics of that family have changed forever.
Fulfilling two goals
Östlund has said many times that he had two goals while making this film. One was to create the most spectacular avalanche sequence in cinema history, the other was to increase the number of divorces. The first goal concerns the look of the film. The avalanche is far from impressive; Östlund and his team simply don’t have the resources to live up to that promise. However, together with cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel, the director does generate a thoroughly unpleasant and threatening feeling. The mountains look cold and imposing, and the constant bangs of the avalanche shelling in the distance turn the ski resort into a sinister place.
As for the second goal, Östlund is more ambivalent. He brings up and criticizes the traditional roles of men and women, and how they should function within families, using an incredibly intriguing situation (Tomas’s behavior during the avalanche) as a starting point. Ebba’s need to discuss it, Tomas’s refusal to even recognize that it happened, and the subsequent conversations between their friends at the resort, Mats and Fanny (Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius), provide moments of humor, heartbreak and awkwardness.
This is like watching a middle-class family through the eyes of Bergman combined with the wicked, comical sensibilities of a cheekier artist, and it’s interesting to see how differently people have reacted to the film. There have been looks of horror and there have been howls of laughter. In spite of interesting sacrifices made within the family near the end, it’s easy to view the film as celebrating a family overcoming marital challenges, which makes it less provocative. Östlund also finds it harder to sustain a straight story for two hours, a new approach for him after the tableau-like arrangements of Involuntary (2008) and Play (2011). Still, this is a bracingly original film and the acting is brilliant.
Force Majeure 2014-Sweden-Denmark-Norway. 118 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Erik Hemmendorff, Marie Kjellson. Written and directed by Ruben Östlund. Cinematography: Fredrik Wenzel. Cast: Johannes Bah Kuhnke (Tomas), Lisa Loven Kongsli (Ebba), Kristofer Hivju (Mats), Fanni Metelius (Fanny), Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren.
Trivia: Original title: Turist. The children are siblings also in real life. Later a stage play. Remade in the U.S. as Downhill (2020).
Last word: “I started to read sociological studies about couples and families in airplane hijackings. What you could see from the statistics was that the frequency of divorce is high afterward, even if people survive and nothing happens […] I almost look at myself as Mats, because a lot of times, when I watch friends or other people in conflict, I have a hard time really connecting to them emotionally. I’m a bit too rational.” (Östlund, The New York Times)