"Force Majeure" is Ruben Östlund’s gruesomely funny fourth feature, winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes and now a top contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. A marriage hits the rocks — or better yet the ice — in this Swedish dark comedy that pits nature against the sacred, so-called nuclear family. Tomas and Ebba (terrifically played by Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli) are on holiday in the French Alps when an avalanche, in the film’s spectacularly enacted centerpiece, nearly swallows them and their two blond children. Though the threat turns out to be a false alarm, it sends the cowardly Tomas literally running away from his family, leaving Ebba alone with the kids in a fog of snow.
Leery of her husband, Ebba twirls into a tizzy of doubt and confusion as Tomas’ already frail male ego implodes: it’s fascinating to watch their discussions of the he-said/she-said particulars, coded conversations that quickly sour into full-blown, well-oiled, dinner-theater psychodrama meltdowns. Every glance, furrowed brow or pursed lip is a loaded gun.
As we enter full award season mode, this Swedish Oscar entry is one to watch, a chilly and impeccably mounted chamber dramedy that ridicules every one of its affluent characters without any compunction. Ruben Östlund and I sat down to discussion "Force Majeure," which is now on the Foreign Language Oscar shortlist of nine. (Watch a pivotal clip here.)
What initially interested you about a couple in crisis?
It started with the avalanche: I had been skiing a lot and when I was between 20 and 25, I was making ski films in the Alps, traveling around Europe and in North America. Then I went to film school, and I left the ski world behind me, and I was trying to go back to the ski world, and to highlight the absurdity of that world. I was inspired by a YouTube clip of a group of people sitting at an outdoor restaurant filming an avalanche tumbling down the mountain. I was interested in the three seconds where it goes from "wow, beautiful" to nervous laughter to total panic.
Then I developed the idea and got to the point where someone said, "What if the father is running away from his wife and his kids when this happens?" Immediately I understood that this situation is raising questions about gender, expectations on gender, the role of the man and the role of the woman. If you see the ski resort, it’s totally constructed around the nuclear family. All the apartments are made for a mother, a father and their kids. It was a setup of holiday, the avalanche, the man doing something that is so forbidden when it comes to the expectations of the man, and that made me dive into the questions in between the relationships after this incident.
I read sociological studies about airplane hijacking. You can tell from this study that the frequency of divorce is extremely high after airplane hijacking. It points out expectations about how we should behave in a crisis situation and when a man isn’t the hero he’s expected to be, couples have a really hard time getting over that.
What’s so absurd about the world of ski resorts?
The tourists dressed up in neon colors, and the goggles, the well-to-do people who don’t have problems in their lives. I was fond of the idea of messing things up for those people, having them meeting human mechanisms that you mostly see in war or a nature catastrophe: they don’t have any experience how they would react when in survival instinct mood. The ski resort itself is like a metaphor: there’s a constant struggle between man and nature. The civilized, trying to control the force of nature. The resort is always trying to stabilize the snow. There was something about that that fit the subject of the film very well.
This idea of the "family" you wanted to mess with, is there something specifically European about it or this a more universal idea of a family?
I had a Swedish family in mind but I also know that the family is almost more holy when it comes to the US. That’s one reason that reactions have been so good here in North America, in Canada and in the US, even stronger and better than in Europe.
In private, Ebba and Tomas are not able to discuss anything. But in public, or with friends, she’s very open (and often very drunk) about her feelings about Tomas and his actions during the avalanche. Why?
When you’re in a couple relationship, your two brains try to compare their view of what happened. The stronger brain will manipulate the weaker brain. Tomas will say, "It’s interesting what you’re saying but I don’t agree." If there’s a third person there, they can immediately say, "This sounds like it’s not true." But when you are in a coupled relationship it’s like being in a bubble. She needs to bring up the subject in front of other people in order to not be manipulated by Tomas, who’s using the male rhetoric to control the situation.
Tomas is a clown. You never make him sympathetic. Even when he bursts into tears, it’s pathetic. Were you trying to break down the archetypal father figure in cinema?
When a man is trying to hold back his feelings for so long, it bursts out. He doesn’t have any control over it. We are so used to seeing a cry when it’s poetic, it triggers sympathy. But when it’s like this? What is that?
When you look at Ebba’s expectations of Tomas, he’s acting in survival instinct, and she’s putting value in his behavior. She thinks she can judge a person out of a situation like that but when survival instinct is put in, all your thoughts are put out. She’s actually blaming him for something. It’s so hard to blame a person doing that. If you look at cinema history for example, the character of the male hero is the most reproduced male character, so all those expectations that we have on each other also come a lot from the moves we have seen and when reality takes place in different way, we feel confused. "You’re supposed to be someone else!"
When you look at most movies, they start when someone loses their dignity and then getting it back before the end. In my films, everyone is losing their dignity but no one is getting it back.
In these long scenes of ping-ponging dialogue between Tomas and Ebba and their guests, were you going by the book or did you just let your actors loose?
A lot of arguments I’ve given to the actors, who were free to improvise. I do improvisations when we do the casting, then I write down dialogue and things that are coming out in a good way and keep them for the script. When we are on set, they don’t have to follow the script 100-percent. But we are following it quite precisely.
In each scene, the actors do seem to be very free and reacting to each other and yet, under your cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel, the camera remains very still and the takes are very long. Why?
It’s almost like a voyeuristic style. We are watching, rather than being in the emotions of the characters. The last sentence before the avalanche is triggered is, "Isn’t there any parmesan cheese?" It highlights humor when in really dramatic events, next to them you have the triviality of life. The static, fixed shot that doesn’t cut things up can highlight those things.
Walk me through the making of this avalanche sequence. Is there CGI in the avalanche itself?
One thing we had as a goal was we wanted to create the most spectacular avalanche sequence in film history. We set the goal quite high; but the avalanche is shot in British Columbia. It’s quite interesting: it’s a North American avalanche messing things up for a Swedish family in the French Alps. The avalanche is shot in British Columbia; we built the outdoor restaurant in a studio in Gothenburg and we had a green screen wall that was really big and we were blowing up smoke, artificial smoke, on set so it was a combination of the avalanche, on the green screen, effects on set but also effects in post-production: it’s definitely the shot we put the most work in of all the scenes. The CGI afterward took maybe one month. But there’s no CGI in the avalanche itself.
The whole sequence reminded me of the conclusion to Lars von Trier’s "Melancholia," another instance where an opulent catastrophe happens alongside the banal everyday.
I really like to play with the expectations of everything going wrong, but there’s nothing actually. Actually we had a subtitle to the film: "In Case of No Emergency." In the bus, nothing happens, in the mist, in the whiteout, nothing happens. It’s just our imagination: We are expecting the worst but nothing happens.
Were any directors or filmmakers weighing on your mind?
A lot of people think it has a Kubrick feeling.
Well, whenever there’s a hotel and you’re snowbound, people jump to that conclusion.
Roy Andersson I love. I really like his humor and the way that he works with a static camera.
So you love Jacques Tati.
Yes, definitely. Also Michael Haneke but with a portion of humor.
He could use some humor. Watching "Force Majeure" is a cold experience. But there’s no undercurrent of evil. It’s all a cosmic joke. Was this always going to be a comedy? This could have gone by way of a very serious Bergman drama.
I really like when comical feelings are next to tragedy. At one moment you can feel horrified, and at the next moment you’re laughing. When Tomas is confronted with his actions and the toy drone flies into the table, that’s what I like the most: social pressure that’s just so heavy, and you just break it in one second.