Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Love will tear us apart: Force Majeure, marriage, and shame

A quiet lunch is interrupted by an uncontrollable force of nature in Force Majeure.

The stated intention of Force Majeure, according to writer-director Ruben Ӧstlund, is to raise the rate of divorce in cities where his film is playing. I do not know whether it will accomplish this goal or not, but it has the potential to create a certain degree of marital strife and to give younger couples pause before making any long-term plans. That probably sits just fine with Ӧstlund.

“We are living in a time when we let the problems of relationships take 90 percent of our time, and we have a culture where we say this is OK,” said Ӧstlund during a question-and-answer session after a recent screening of his new film. “We have too much time, we have too many resources, so we can suddenly focus on problems that are totally stupid. And if we have this economical level that we have in society, shouldn’t our thoughts and our energy be put on problems that are [hurting] other people, or should we accept that now all the problems that we have are relationship problems?”

Ӧstlund and the film’s star, Johannes Kuhnke, joined a receptive and curious audience after a viewing of Force Majeure last week at the Lincoln Center in New York City. During a lively hour-long discussion, they discussed everything from shooting the “most spectacular avalanche scene in film history” to the celebrity phone hacking scandal. Ӧstlund is a man of many ideas, happy to share his thoughts on a wide range of topics, and once he gets going on a subject, he is off and running.

Johannes Kuhnke (left) and Ruben Ostlund (center) participate in a moderated Q-and-A at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

So it makes sense Force Majeure would be a film that presents many ideas, some of them contradictory and all of them intriguing. It is an incisive jab at cultural expectations of manhood, the social construct of the nuclear family, the crippling impact of shame, and the naïve ideal of heroism. All of this is wrapped up in a smart, breezy domestic comedy-drama.

Kuhnke plays Tomas, a workaholic Swede who takes his family on a ski vacation to the French Alps. His wife, Ebba, is played by the marvelous Lisa Loven Kongsli, and their two children are played by real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren. They are an “ideal” nuclear family – a breadwinning father, a caregiving mother, and one child of each gender.

They are eating lunch at a restaurant on the balcony of the resort when a controlled avalanche begins to speed down the mountain. It takes a moment for the panic to set in, but as soon as it does, most of the diners flee, including Tomas. He grabs his phone, turns, and runs, leaving his family to whatever fate may befall it. As it turns out, there was never any danger, just the terrifying whiteout of snow smoke. Everyone is safe, but no one is OK. The question for Ebba becomes: Can she live with a husband who has proven to be a coward?

Watching Kuhnke and Konglsi in this film is like watching two great tennis players, but instead of trading backhands and volleys, they trade passive aggression and fierce recriminations. Their barbs are so pointed they may as well be serving up razor blades. That she cannot get beyond her husband’s betrayal is not entirely Ebba’s fault as Tomas at first refuses to acknowledge the reality of what he has done. Kuhnke, who does not have many film credits to his name, is excellent at playing both the denial and shame Tomas feels as the situation swirls out of control to include most of the family’s small world.

“Every time you have a new role, especially in film, we have this kind of climate where people always play the better part of yourself, the higher you,” said Kuhnke. “For me, I have been playing so much this young man that’s in love, so I wanted to explore the ugliness of being human. So this came as a present when I got the part. It was a nice experience to go into that world of non-heroic pictures.”

To say Tomas is non-heroic is an understatement. He is a slimy, pitiable wretch, a liar obsessed with his own fragile self-image, and an egotistical manipulator, and in one of the movie’s many standout scenes, he goes on a crying jag to end all crying jags. Tellingly, it begins as crocodile tears but transitions into something deeper and more real than we had been led to believe Tomas was capable of being.

Who is this man Ebba has married and spent years building a life with? In another outstanding sequence, Ebba has a conversation with a woman in an open marriage. This woman is on vacation from her husband and sleeping with a different man every night. Her husband is happy, she is happy, and they see no problem with their arrangement. This disturbs Ebba on a deep and philosophical level.

She cannot see how this could work. Pointedly, Ebba does not try to understand this woman, rather she insists her marriage must be flawed or that she must want something resembling what Ebba has. Ebba sees her own situation – before the avalanche – as a normal, successful ideal, the kind of life to which people must aspire. To meet someone who does not share this worldview is an offense to her every sensibility.

“If you look at the modern ski resort, the French modern ski resort that was created around the ’50s, it’s totally built up around the idea of the nuclear family,” said Ӧstlund. “This historical aspect of the kind of lifestyle we have today, the nuclear family, we not very often think of it as something that is just present in our time.

“If you look at the 1800s, it was the large family that was existing, and when the industrial development took place, people were moving into the cities, and we were moving into flats that were really, really small. So we had to cut the band with our older generation. … We had to invent a new word for the new kind of lifestyle, to motivate the new kind of lifestyle, so we invented the word ‘nuclear family,’ and we said the most important things for children are the blood bonds with the mother and the father.”

Though they say little, Tomas and Ebba’s children are central to the thematic thrust of the plot. Their primary fear is that their parents will divorce, thus severing the “blood bonds” with their parents. This is a tragic side effect of the normalized family structure, when two people stay together for the kids. In this culture, the idea of family must be protected at all times, regardless of the cost.

Tomas’ cowardice in the face of disaster has undermined the structure of his family, and because that structure is so important to Ebba, their lives begin to unravel. He is not a hero. He could never really be a hero, but in these matters, ignorance is often bliss. This incident has force Ebba to see a side of her husband she did not know was there, a side she may not be able to abide.

Part of Ӧstlund’s point, however, is that people cannot be held responsible for the actions they take in life-or-death situations. After all, we are instinctual creatures, he argues, and our only obligation is to survive.

Director Ruben Ostlund (left) answers audience questions after a screening of his new film, Force Majeure.

“If you look at film history, I think the most reproduced portrait of man is man as a hero,” said Ӧstlund. “But when it comes to reality and when it comes to survival instinct, the culture is put out, and something else is put in.”

At the same time, we participate in a culture that demands heroism and shames cowardice. In the course of his research, Ӧstlund came across a number of stories in which people failed to live up to arbitrary standards of heroism and put their own survival ahead of others’. Many of them, when faced with the reality of what they had done, killed themselves out of guilt.

“I can’t think of any other animal that when survival instinct isn’t the strongest instinct, that you are actually more afraid of losing face, so you prefer to die,” said Ӧstlund. “This is something that points out something that is very fundamental when it comes to humans – that we have an outside perspective on ourselves, that we can see ourselves from the outside and imagine ourselves related to a group. … The outside perspective, the shame, that it can be so strong for us humans is something that really interests me.”

The effects of Tomas’ shame reverberate throughout the film, touching everyone with whom the family comes in contact. The ramifications are so devastating because no one can see beyond themselves and their petty problems. Ultimately, the inability to see the bigger picture may be the most damaging side effect of them all because while we are looking at ourselves in the mirror, the next avalanche may be cascading down the hill behind us.

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