‘Force Majeure’ generating an avalanche of moviegoer reactions
Think of it as the art-house answer to “Gone Girl,” a movie almost guaranteed to complicate dates, ruin dinners and start many an awkward conversation.
“Force Majeure,” playing in Los Angeles, is a depiction of an actual snow-on-the-mountain avalanche at a family ski resort in the French Alps but also the pent-up emotions that can come tumbling out after an intense event.
Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund pushed things to such an emotionally raw extreme that he admitted he was nervous when showing the film to his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend, anxious about the moments he had lifted from his own experiences. With a startling sense of scale, the film places the vastness of the mountains and the power of the avalanche against the relatively small specifics of family life, such as how a couple navigate around each other in the bathroom in the morning.
“That was something I had been struggling with in my previous films,” said writer-director Östlund, in Los Angeles recently with one of his stars, Johannes Bah Kuhnke. “I really wanted to combine the bigger questions, to highlight things more broadly about society while also dealing with the problems of being an individual and living up to the expectations that are put on you as a man or as a woman.”
The film, selected as Sweden’s official submission for the foreign-language Academy Award, is Östlund’s fourth feature but his first to receive commercial distribution in the United States. At the Cannes Film Festival, it won the Un Certain Regard jury prize.
The Times’ Kenneth Turan declared, “This filmmaker is in control at each and every moment, and does he ever know what he is doing.” Peter Debruge in Variety noted “of all the satirists working in cinema today, Östlund displays perhaps the slyest streak of dark humor.”
Östlund, 40, began his filmmaking career in his early 20s making a series of ski films before launching his career as a feature director. But for “Force Majeure,” he felt himself pulled back up the slopes.
“I had been trying to find a topic to get back to that environment, to use that environment as a base for a feature film,” Ostlund said. “But it’s hard to find a reason because that world is so kitschy, with the neon colors and mirrored lenses. When I got back to the ski world again I wanted to highlight the absurdity of the ski resort but also how the struggle that is between man and nature on a ski resort really is on a metaphorical level.”
An idyllic afternoon at the ski resort for Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), her husband, Tomas (Kuhnke), and their two small children is ruptured when Tomas selfishly and unthinkingly runs away from his family in a moment of crisis, when a controlled avalanche seems to come too close. Ebba and even the children are shocked, confused and disappointed by his behavior.
After the avalanche, Tomas struggles with his own behavior, no longer feeling in control of himself or his domestic life, while Östlund elevates the tale of one couple toward an examination of broader male-female dynamics.
Playing as both a squirm-inducing comedy and an examination of gender roles and relationship dynamics, nearly everything in the film could be a cause for debate.
“So many people are reading that it’s a bad marriage before, but I don’t think so,” said Kuhnke, himself happily married to Alice Bah Kuhnke, recently appointed as Sweden’s minister for Culture and Democracy. “I think they have the kind of marriage that you have after 10 years.”
To that end, when Kuhnke and Kongsli were both cast they had three months before the shoot began. To quickly get to a place of oblivious familiarity, they agreed to a Skype call every day, excluding weekends.
“In the beginning, it was very arranged, I’d put on a nice shirt, make sure the background looked in order, be really upbeat,” recalled Kuhnke, “and then after one month it was just ‘Oh, I have to call Lisa. I hate these conversations.’ So I think that added something to our relationship together when we were playing.”
The story builds to an embarrassing moment for Kuhnke’s character, who wails and wails in front of his family. Östlund initially sent the actor links to online videos of men crying — “Worst Man Cry Ever” was one, he recalled — to get the level of discomfort just so.
“The normal approach, almost every movie you see the actors playing the higher version of themselves, and here you really have to dig into the low, dirty, not-so-pleasant side,” said Kuhnke, who seems to have taken to parts about unsavory men — he recently finished a run onstage in Stockholm as Humbert Humbert in Edward Albee’s adaptation of “Lolita.”
For Östlund, the uncomfortable self-examination the story may cause in some viewers extended to himself.
“When I was talking about the idea with my girlfriend, she said, ‘I’m not sure you would have stayed,’ and I was hurt,” he said. “‘Why do you think I will run?’ Something about that highlighted how our behavior sometimes has nothing to do with rational decisions. If we don’t have the experience of this particular situation, we don’t understand how there is a totally different reality to it.”
Then there is the actual moment of the avalanche itself, which shows Östlund’s technical control to go along with his sharp thematic touch. (This fall he began teaching film at the University of Gothenburg.) Shooting the scene on a soundstage in Sweden using a green screen to insert footage of an avalanche from British Columbia with a mix of practical effects and digital enhancements, Östlund set a relatively straightforward goal for himself.
“I wanted to create the most spectacular avalanche seen in film history,” he said. “And it’s interesting to even just say something like that, because the energy working on the scene is like, ‘OK, now we really have to do our best.’ It helps everybody perform even better.”
Östlund likes to joke when introducing screenings of the film that he hopes it will cause a spike in divorce rates. Even among its creative team there are disagreements as to what happens once the story ends — whether Tomas and Ebba will stay together or split up.
“We had different ideas on that,” said Östlund. Nodding toward his star, he noted, “You think they will continue together.”
Kuhnke quickly added, “Unfortunately.”
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