Swedish import Force Majeure (opening this weekend) is a fascinating story about an affluent family that heads to the French Alps together to have some fun and spend some time together. It all takes a turn for the worse when they’re dining on rooftop patio at the base of the mountain and it looks like an avalanche is heading straight for them. While Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) shields her kids and screaming for her husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) is running for his life. Then the unexpected happens, it was just a false alarm, and while most people are laughing it off, this family has been shaken to its very core, illuminating larger issues about the state of their relationships.
During its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival I got the unique pleasure to sit down with writer/director Ruben Östlund about what inspired the movie, the challenges of working in the elements, and how the problems of individuals are magnified by a perceived tragedy.
Dork Shelf: Force Majeure has a big, almost epic feel to it at times, but it’s such an intimate story. I’m really curious how you came about telling this type of family based story in this fasjion?
Ruben Östlund: Well when it comes to my previous films, I really think that I am interested in topics that are really almost sociological in nature. Things like group behaviour and dynamics, really taking a look at the species from an almost anthropological standpoint. My style is almost voyeuristic in a way.
DS: Kind of like the janitor in the movie?
RO: HA! Exactly, and before I started in film school I was actually filming skiing, and I made ski films throughout the world. When I started in university in Sweden I had left the ski world behind me, but I had always been looking for away to get back there, but it’s hard to because it can be a very kitschy world, with all the neon colours and such. (laughs)
So when the avalanche concept came up, it became about a man abandoning his family and not standing up for them when there’s an outside force threatening them, which is probably one of the most unforgiveable things that you can do as a man. Through this I got in touch with so many interesting existential questions on how we’re playing the role of a man, and playing in the role of a woman, as well; adapting to expectations that we haven’t even questioned or taken any kind of a standpoint on, just automatically reacting to them.
So when you find a situation like this avalanche in the movie you have to make sure a lot of people can connect and relate to it. I actually do consider the avalanche to be the main character in the film because with the people reacting to the avalanche it’s less about being character driven. Films that feature an avalanche may very well act in the exact same way. I’m looking for more of an identification of a dilemma and how it gets reacted to.
DS: There’s a palpable sense of tension that permeates throughout the movie, and like you said it really is less about characters and more about their reaction where you are a fly on the wall being very observational. How do you set up this environment where you’re directing but also want to stay as out of the way as much as possible as well?
RO: Before I end up shooting , I really like to do a lot of improvisation around the situation in order to find the most interesting situation to play. I even use myself as an actor sometimes just so I can really find the right feel of where we need it all to go and what is and isn’t possible. However, once we get on to set, I usually have a pretty clear view on what I want to shoot. We also had a lot of time while shooting. I usually have one camera position going each day, with 60 shooting days instead of a more standard 30. When you have all the crew and people around, it allows you to re-evaluate, not only for me but for the actors, as. We can find a very naturalistic style and way of going about things.
DS: But I can imagine that can difficult on some of the exterior scenes as well, particularly the scene with the whiteout, I mean that must have been difficult.
RO: Oh yeah, we got incredibly lucky, especially with that scene in particular. There had been four days of whiteout conditions when we had been shooting it. I don’t know if you’ve ever been skiing in fog or in mist, but you completely lose perspective. You don’t know what’s up or down, and it’s totally silent, which makes for a very specific feeling when you’re skiing in fog, and we wanted to match that as best we could.
DS: It creates this sense of total isolation that the audience gets immersed in and especially shooting outside, how do you actually manage to pull that off?
RO: Again, we were just lucky! (Laughs) Obviously I do have previous experience shooting in snow, so a lot of that came in very handy when shooting exteriors and trying to capture those specific moments that we wanted.
DS: How much of a character do you feel the actual location was, and could you have even told this kind of story in any other setting?
RO: There’s something about the metaphor of the avalanche that has such a good function in the film, and when you take that with the kind of events that generally happen on a ski resort that you can observe at any one of them you go to, you see very interesting examples of man attempting to control nature. From the grooming of trails, to putting up fences, to even something as simple as the lift line taking you up and down the mountain, all that along with the avalanche itself shows the raw and unvarnished aspects of nature which can be quite uncivilized coexisting mere feet away from civilization itself, with the ski lodge and all the people. That set up mirrors what Tomas is going through as he exposes an uncivilized aspect about himself. He’s trying to control all the aspects of it and his own life. He ultimately gets so desperate that he just starts telling a bunch of stupid lies, and it just shows the triviality of our needs and instincts and how we try to cover them up.
DS: You place social hierarchies throughout the film with Tomas and the other characters trying to navigate them all. I have to ask though, because there was one character that I mentioned earlier in the janitor who is almost separate from it all, and I’m wondering what he ultimately meant to you in the crux of this story?
RO: For me he really is a viewer from the outside of it all, probably from a different economic level than that of the family that he’s always watching. In a way, I think he’s there to highlight the absurdity of the problem that this family is having while they’re staying in this luxurious five star hotel. He’s almost a brain ghost, and it highlights the prototypical nuclear family with a very luxurious problem to be having. If it was a life or death type of scenario, it wouldn’t be a problem at all. I mean, it really comes down to being a problem because in a world where we have electric toothbrushes it CAN be a problem. (laughs)
DS: What do you hope the ultimate take away or lesson is that audiences will come away with after seeing this film?
RO: For me the answer in the movie, or at least my perspective it on it, is at the end of the movie. There’s a man who offers Tomas a cigarette. At first he says no, but then he takes one, and in that moment smoking has never felt as right as it did right then and there. They’re walking along this mountain, and they have no idea how long they will be out there, but they’re all walking together which I really like, and when the son asks “Dad, do you smoke?” The answer is supposed to be no. “No, I’m just having the one,” or something like that, but we see him change his mind and he says “Yes, Yes I do”. Tomas allows himself to be a flawed human being ,which allowed him to be honest to himself and subsequently honest with other people. I think that we need to train ourselves to not be afraid of losing face in front of each other and embrace our faults rather then run from them.