Nineteenth-Century Modernism within Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article contains multiple spoilers for nineteenth century Scandinavian plays, if that’s the sort of thing you’re worried about getting spoiled for you -Chris.

Ruben Östlund’s black-comedy Force Majeure made major waves at Cannes and Toronto Film Festival in 2014 for being “original and… refreshing” (Daily Express). Regardless of its unique appearance, however, the film demonstrates clear ties to nineteenth-century Scandinavian modernist theatre in the way it challenges conventional notions concerning gender roles, industrialization, and the middle-class. To fully get into this, I need to do a quick discussion of Scandinavia’s modernist period, including key writers and themes that were popular at the time. From there I’ll examine how Swedish cinema has been and continues to be influenced by its dramatic roots. Then, we can deconstruct Force Majeure, specifically focusing on how its treatment of gender, class, and industrialization resembles that of writers local to the region from over one hundred years earlier. Okay… here we go!

Modernism took shape in Scandinavia during the mid-nineteenth century in the midst of a series of industrial and agricultural revolutions that continuously shook the fiber of society. With an increase in mines, textile mills and factories, women became increasingly present within the workforce, challenging previous assumptions of an inherent gender hierarchy. This power dynamic inspired a variety of plays at the time, perhaps none more famous than Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which studies the forbidden romance between a wealthy aristocrat and her engaged servant. Aside from Miss Julie, Strindberg’s other plays continue questioning the shifting nature of romantic/sexual control with works like The Creditors, in which an overly submissive husband dies of a seizure caused by the sight of his wife being pursued by her ex-lover and The Father, in which a wife has her husband institutionalized so she could raise her daughter as she pleases.

Along with dynamic gender roles, the technological revolutions allowed a middle-class to flourish by nurturing it with both economic security and unprecedented consumerism. The bourgeoisie became a target for countless satires and commentaries, such as Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which centers on the Ekdals, a seemingly perfect middle-class family until the father discover’s his wife had an affair several years ago that ultimately drives the two apart, resulting in their only child’s death. Beneath the family’s comfortable lifestyle resides a series of “life-lies” necessary to perpetuate the image of contentedness (Ibsen 34). Other Ibsen plays further dissect the underlying discontent of the middle-class, like Hedda Gabler, in which a wealthy and educated woman kills herself in order to avoid enduring a scandal and A Doll’s House, in which a woman leaves her happy children, impressive house, and respected husband to find something of greater value.

Finally and perhaps most obvious, the industrial revolution raised new questions concerning the relationship between technology and the natural world. In Ibsen’s The Master Builder, an acrophobic architect attempts to climb to the top of his building only to fall to death thus depicting the perpetual conflict between technological perfection and human error. In The Wild Duck, the father fancies himself an inventor and spends the majority of the play tinkering with his machine in a futile quest to revolutionize society.

The notion that a twenty-first-century film would incorporate nineteenth-century ideologies is not that crazy considering the cultural context. As soon as it was making films, Sweden began converting staged scripts into screenplays. In fact, by 1912, Anna Hofman-Uddgren, the first Swedish female director, adapted Miss Julie and The Father to the screen (Marklund 45). Victor Sjöström’s 1917 film A Man There Was, which many view as the marker of “the beginning of the Golden Age, …was an adaptation of a long poem written by Ibsen” (Marklund 73). These two playwrights would continue to provide sources for a variety of adaptions over the following one hundred years.

However, modernism’s impact on Swedish cinema adds up to more than just adaptations. Many twentieth century directors focused primarily on gender and sexuality within their work, such as Sölve Cederstand’s in his 1935 drama Close Relations, which depicts “a married couple com[ing] to visit the man’s sister and her family in Sweden [only to discover] the woman is strikingly different to both the ideals of womanhood and the actual contemporary woman in Swedish society” (Wallengren 168). Another example is Hasse Ekman’s 1950 film Girl With Hyacinths, in which a couple’s “sexualities do not correspond with the norm,” consequently taking on a “progressive” stance (Kokstade 164).

In fact, “the bulk of [Astrid] Lindgren’s oeuvre frequently [engages with] class and gender differences,” as demonstrated by her 1970 film Pipi in the South Seas, in which “the characters Tommy and Annika… incarnate more liberal 1970s gender roles,” (Wallengren 168). Even Ingmar Bergman regularly employed “the theme of gender and homosexuality” throughout his many works (Larsson 14). So hopefully it’s clear now that long after the nineteenth century, Swedish cinema has continued the work of its artistic predecessor (Swedish theatre) by investigating the challenges that arise from having stagnant social roles within eras of sexual, financial, and industrial dynamism.

Focusing on Force Majeure specifically, the film explores a variety of themes initially attributed to modernism. The narrative’s central conflict emerges early on when a controlled avalanche unnerves Tomas enough to abandon his wife and children during a lavish vacation in the French Alps. Embarrassed by his cowardice, Tomas goes on to deny what transpired while Ebba, clearly disturbed by what occurred, refuses to stop discussing it and even shames him in front of their friends Fanni, Mats, and Charlotte. Tomas’ masculinity continues to be called into question after “a young woman… tells [him] that her friend thinks Tomas is the best-looking man in the” area, only to later confess that she was mistaken (Holden). Ego deflated, Tomas tries to regain his sense of manhood by attending an all-male rave that consists of chugging beer, bumping chests, and emitting war cries. These attempts prove unsuccessful as his feminized role devolves into an infantilized one, culminating in a climax in which “he has a cringe-inducing emotional meltdown in front of his children that appears to be partly feigned” (Holden). Exhausted by this hysteria, Ebba “arranges a crisis” allowing her husband to reassert his dominance by rescuing her, willfully relinquishing control back to the patriarchy (Holden).

Simultaneous to the central conflict occurs a variety of other gender struggles played out by the surrounding characters. Before long, Ebba and Tomas’ argument infects the stability of Fanni and Mats’ relationship. After witnessing a particularly harsh squabble, Fanni becomes surprised at Mats’ astonishment and orders him to “say something.” However, the speech Mats gives hoping to resolve their friends’ issue ultimately empathizes with Tomas as an everyman rather than a deviant, compelling Fanni to later ask him how he would act in the same situation. This initial doubt intensifies with the knowledge that Mats left his children with his ex-wife in order to accompany Fanni, a woman half his age, on the trip, thus demonstrating his incompetence at fulfilling his role of a father. Fanni insists that her twenty-one-year-old ex-boyfriend who lives with his parents “would never run away,” suggesting his dominance (Force Majeure). What begins as a simple question is dragged out through the night and well into the morning, with the now insecure Mats obsessively asking Fanni what he could have done to give her the impression that he would abandon her. Therefore, although they didn’t directly experience the avalanche, their relationship ruptures as quickly as Ebba and Tomas’ marriage.

This depiction of the male ego as a fragile complex can be found in Ruben’s earlier work, like The Guitar Mongoloid, in which a man is peer-pressured into playing Russian Roulette. In his other film Involuntary, “a patriarch suffers an eye injury [at a birthday party] but resists leaving for medical help” and later “a man won’t leave his buddies’ getaway trip even after he is sexually assaulted” (Kenigsberg). Like Ibsen and Strindberg before him, Ruben seeks to challenge the “many expectations imposed upon men and women in the nuclear family” (Porton). He attributes this to film itself, stating that “the male hero is the most common protagonist in film history, just as the woman as sex object is the most common female protagonist in film history,” consequently solidifying the roles played out in today’s culture (Porton). Perhaps that’s why the film ends with Ebba ditching her family on a bus after fearing a potential crash, demonstrating that anyone, male or female, is susceptible to the flight instinct.

Perhaps the only character who escapes the shackles of social expectations is Charlotte, a married mother who arrives at the resort to relax and sleep with handsome young men. She has no qualms objectifying these men as she tells Ebba to “check out… [her] Italian stud.” She also states that she and her husband have no “arrangement,” but they do “take responsibility for [their] relationships.” Rather than put stock in the pretense that spouses cannot lust after others, Charlotte states that she is happy for her husband “if he has a good time with some woman.” She goes on to say that, at the end of the day, “there are lots of people who are important in [her] life not just [her] husband and children” and that she does not build her “entire self-esteem on being a woman in a relationship or being a mother,” a trait that Ebba appears to envy. She also says that the best thing she can do for her children is to make sure she’s “doing fine” as an individual in her own life. She asks “why [she should] have to choose” between participating in a nuclear family and engaging with attractive men as a sexual being. She’s also the only one who doesn’t follow Ebba off the bus at the end, suggesting that her interpersonal detachment allows her to face death without fear for herself or how it will impact those she loves.

Force Majeure also heavily criticizes the bourgeoisie as embodied by Ebba and Tomas. The two parents spend money on a luxurious family ski trip, matching pajamas, and expensive flying drone toys (snapping smiling pictures all the while) but fail in producing an authentically enjoyable trip. Within the first twenty minutes of the film, the children demand their parents leave the hotel room so that they can relax and play video games without them. Even more damaging, however, the family cannot mask their animalistic qualities, resulting in the uncomfortable aftermath. According to Ruben, in making the film he wanted “to take well-to-do Swedes and have them confront a… human behavior that they didn’t think they were capable of since they were ‘above’ it” (Porton). He also discusses the role of the custodian who lurks through the hallways of the resort and silently witnesses a number of Tomas and Ebba’s confrontations outside of their hotel room. Serving as an “anthropologist observing human behavior,” the custodian comes “from the working class and has a different view of economic and social reality,” allowing him to provide “some perspective on their silly behavior” (Porton).

So Ruben’s work “brings the rigor of… Strindberg” to the screen by playing the role of “a cold observer who hates the romantic lie which opposes the animalistic truth of behaviorists” (Binétruy). Yet, a more apt comparison might be to Ibsen given that this “romantic lie” is relatively the same “life-lie” that allowed Hjalmar to see past Gina’s indiscretions to project the appearance of a happy middle-class family. Like Hjalmar, Ebba becomes too aware of the ruse to continue without intervention. Or perhaps the film more fittingly reflects A Doll’s House in that a seemingly uncontrollable act (an avalanche in the film, a disease in the play) places the patriarch in a stressful position to which he reacts in a manner that shatters the romantic, perhaps even unfairly ideal, expectations of his wife.

Engaging further with its modernist roots, the film comments on man’s relationships with nature and technology. Most compelling is the recurring motif of playing Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons: Summer” over shots of ski lodge technology, like machines blasting artificial snow, plows paving the slopes, and speakers emitting noises to trigger controlled avalanches. This synchronization reminds us that we don’t actually know what time of year it is since everything here is manmade. The power generated by the trembling staccato strings and the majestic long pans of equipment working through snow covered slopes in this audiovisual discrepancy conveys a clear tone of defiance as man bends nature to his will.

In terms of the narrative, Tomas appears to be a reincarnation of Halvard from The Master Builder by illustrating that no matter how perfect technology becomes, human error continues to form conflicts with it, whether or not that conflict is legitimate, such as Halvard’s fall from the steeple, or perceived, such as Tomas’ fear of being killed by the avalanche. Throughout the entire film, the viewer never sees technology malfunction, only humans. Nevertheless, Tomas’ iPhone does demonstrate how technology can betray its users. While operating the device to document the avalanche to preserve the memory, his excitement transforms into terror, causing him to evacuate the balcony, shove others out of the way, and abandon his family. He flees, leaving everything except his phone, which remains unmistakably clutched in his left hand as he runs out of frame, thus suggesting Tomas values it more than he does his son whom he pushes past in his journey to escape unscathed. Perhaps the greatest irony in the film occurs when his beloved iPhone ultimately turns on him by playing the video he had inadvertently recorded of him running away for Ebba, Mats, and Fanni, placing the final nail in his ego’s coffin. Therefore, while no mechanism ever actually breaks down, industrialization manages to confound and even sell out its own users regardless of whether the year is 1880 or 2014.

Looking past the film’s extensive employment of modernist themes, it also cultivates an aesthetic resembling live theatre. The entire film takes place in one isolated setting over the course of five days, mirroring the structure of most plays, a form of performance bound by spatial-temporal limitations that do not apply to cinema. The film uses title cards to denote what day it is, thus breaking down the narrative into acts. Although there are five days, marking five acts, as found in Greek and Shakespearean dramas, only four of them are prefaced with a title card with the transition from the fourth night to the fifth morning going uninterrupted, possibly because all that’s left is falling action.

Force Majeure features a variety of stage effects in addition to its CGI. For instance, the notorious avalanche sequence required a number of practical effects such as a fog machine. However, even if one watches this scene with the foreknowledge that it includes such gadgetry, they have little time to detect it given that only seconds into the avalanche the screen turns completely white for a sustained beat, blinding the viewer of any immediate aftermath. This whiteout reappears when Ebba stages her damsel-in-distress circumstance. Courageously running to find her, Tomas disappears into the abyss for over a minute only to later reemerge carrying Ebba in his arms. These whiteouts function by allowing offstage action, events occurring within the scene that the viewer might hear but can never see. Therefore, Ruben sculpts his film to appear less like a work of cinema and more like one of theatre, thus paying homage to the Scandinavian modernists, from whose work he so clearly borrows.

In spite of its title, no element of Force Majeure is produced through an act of God, certainly not the soundscape and cinematography, which boast painstakingly perfected tracks and compositions that provide the sleek appealing aesthetic that counterpoints the characters’ dysfunction. Regarding the narrative, no sequence ever comes down to fate, not the controlled avalanches, or Tomas’ animalistic instincts, or Ebba’s preconceived notions of social roles, which her husband shatters. Every catalyst in the plot can be traced back to the human consciousness, and the constructs it creates concerning gender, wealth, and technology. In our twentieth century age of postmodern nihilism, Ruben Östlund breaks away from the current trend to re-examine the modernistic belief in man’s potential as depicted in nineteenth century Scandinavian dramatic literature. Throughout the film we view the range of man’s possibilities, from abandoning one’s family like a coward to manipulating nature like a god, it all comes down to one’s will whether he or she survives, protects, and possibly even thrives.

FURTHER READING

Binétruy, Pascal. “RUBEN ÖSTLUND: De Riches Suédois Perdent Leur Dignité.” Positif 09 2016: 75-6. ProQuest. 16 Nov. 2016.

Holden, Stephen. “‘Force Majeure’ Explores Couples’ Expectations as Gender Roles Shift.” New York Times Company. Aug 20 2015. ProQuest. 16 Nov. 2016.

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Translated by Nicholas Rudall, Mineola, Dover Publications, 1992.

Ibsen, Henrik. Hedda Gabler. Translated by Nicholas Rudall, Mineola, Dover Publications, 1990.

Ibsen, Henrik. The Wild Duck. Translated by Anthony Clarvoe, Mineola, Dover Publications, 2000.

Kenigsberg, Ben. “Ruben Östlund’s ‘Involuntary,’ ‘Play’ and ‘The Guitar Mongoloid’.” New York Times Company. Jan 13 2015. ProQuest. 16 Nov. 2016.

Larsson, Mariah and Marklund, Andersin, “Introduction.” Swedish Film : An Introduction and a Reader. Lund, US: Nordic Academic Press, 2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 15 November 2016.

Porton, Richard. “Winter of Discontent: An Interview with Ruben Östlund.” Cineaste Winter 2014: 38,39,42,54. ProQuest. 16 Nov. 2016.

Strindberg, August. Creditors: In an English Version. Translated by David Greig, London, Faber & Faber, 2008.

Strindberg, August. The Father. Translated by Edwin Bjorkman, Mineola, Dover Publications, 2012.

Strindberg, August. Miss Julie. Translated by Edwin Bjorkman, Mineola, Dover Publications, 2003.

Wallengren, Ann-Kristin, “Celebrating Swedishness: Swedish-Americans and Cinema.” Swedish Film : An Introduction and a Reader. Lund, US: Nordic Academic Press, 2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 15 November 2016.

De Ofrivilliga (AB Svensk Filmindustri, 2008).

Gitarrmongot (Triangelfilm AB, 2004).

Fadren (Anna Hofman-Uddgren, 1912).

Flicka och Hyacinter (Terrafilm, 1950).

Force Majeure (TriArt Film, 2014).

Fröken Julie (Anna Hofman-Uddgren, 1912).

Pippi pa de Sju Haven (Beta film, 1970).

Terje Vigen. (Victor Sjöström, 1917).

Tjocka Släkten (Sölve Cederstand, 1935).

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