Interview: Ruben Östlund, ‘Force Majeure’

“Have you cried as an adult?” My question to Ruben Östlund, the director of ice-cold Swedish black comedy Force Majeure (2014), is not as impertinent as it might appear. It’s a reference to a scene of his film in which patriarch Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), on holiday with his family at a luxury French ski resort, implodes when he comes to terms with cowardly fleeing from an avalanche without his wife and kids. “Yeah, of course” he replies, “but not in that horrible ‘man-cry’ way like in the film. If you don’t cry in the right way, you get no sympathy at all. If it suddenly bursts out, tears, snot, it comes out in something that is not sympathetic at all.” Those kind of caustic judgements are the catalyst for Force Majeure‘s glacial look into human relationships.

In the film’s pivotal scene, a huge avalanche (filmed in British Columbia, pasted onto a greenscreen in a Swedish studio) threatens to engulf a plush resort restaurant. Tomas, sitting with his family, decides to take his iPhone and run, abandoning his loved ones. His wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) feels betrayed. “It’s an involuntary reaction”, Östlund says of Tomas’ flight, which turns out to be from a harmless and controlled snowfall. “He’s only considered as a coward from the point of view of our society and our expectations on gender. When he exposes his survival instinct, he is exposing something he wants to control. He wants to put it under a façade of a civilised figure.” So forms the basis of two hours of achingly-awkward family drama.

Tomas at first denies his escape to his distraught wife, but he always looks ready to internally combust, unable to come to terms with his knee-jerk reaction. It’s a delicate piece, which won the jury prize at last year’s Cannes and was nominated for the foreign-language Golden Globe, but carries a wickedly funny tone, as shown by the filmmakers’ typically comic YouTube clip when they failed to reach the Oscar shortlist. The mountain backdrop is not new to the Swedish director. His earliest films were shorts about winter sports, a collection of which got him into film school in Gothenburg. “I loved snow when I was younger. My mother was from the northern part of Sweden, and during the winter holidays we travelled up to where she was brought up.”

“You change your perceptions when you ski, you don’t think about everyday life’s problems – you think about whether there are any dangers in front of you. The mountains create a totally different feeling: at one point you can be going fast, really scared, then 300m later you can be on a safe spot again. As an adult, when was I scared the last time? So it’s something about dealing with the forces of nature that reveals the trivialities.” Östlund, who like the main character has two children and a (now ex-) wife, and “lived the nuclear family lifestyle” says he identifies feelings of guilt within men. “There are expectations of how we should be and what we should do. I was inspired by the principal on the South Korean ship who committed suicide once he’d abandoned his students. Once he was on shore he knew that he had lost face, so he killed himself. On the one hand we can be acting out of survival instinct and on the next we can be acting out of fear of losing our identity.” The film questions which, if either, has the stronger pull. Indeed, his previous film, Play (2001), was all about losing face, and provoked a backlash in Sweden.

A bitter satire involving school bullying, a group of black kids mug middle-class schoolchildren while adults watching nearby are too afraid to intervene for fear of being called racist. Less sociological, here this family’s problems are more elemental. Östlund talks fluently too about shame amongst women too, including nude photos and revenge pornography on the internet: “Some people think it’s a feminist film, maybe it’s feminist only in its way to raise issues of gender expectations. I read an article by Monica Lewinksy in Vanity Fair. You remember, they were so harsh on her in the American media? And she was starting now to engage herself in women that have considered suicide because nude photos were on the internet. So society – by putting pictures of themselves on the internet – were putting more guilt and shame into sexuality. It should be people saying: ‘Everybody, don’t put a picture of somebody else on the internet without asking!’ If you do that you should be ashamed!”

Force Majeure is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, courtesy of Curzon Film World. You can read our review here.

Ed Frankl | @Ed_Frankl