Ruben Östlund on 'Force Majeure' and the Kitsch World of Ski Resorts

Oliver Lunn
Courtesy of Artificial Eye.

As an adjective, ‘Haneke-esque’ is pretty much unavoidable when talking about Force Majeure, the latest film from Swedish director Ruben Östlund. Like Haneke’s work, the film is stylistically austere and glacial (in every sense) although with significantly more humour; a masterful parody of masculinity, as our review says. 

I sat down with Östlund in Toronto last year to talk about how he shot the spectacular avalanche scene, the influence of the real-life Costa Concordia captain as well as the films of Roy Anderson, and his own views on what some critics have described as a cynical ending.

Hi Ruben. ‘Force Majeure’ is derived from the French term meaning "greater force" and refers to natural and unavoidable catastrophes. Can you tell me about the title’s relation to the film’s themes?
Ruben Östlund
: Well ‘Force Majeure’ is like a moment or situation that you don’t know how to handle, it’s an exception to the rule and it puts things upside down in a way that’s uncontrollable. I was also interested in it because it was used a lot in insurance claims. The term ‘Force Majeure‘ is like a contract in a way, and it’s also connected to marriage. You have an agreement on how things should be dealt with and how you’re supposed to behave.

The story feels incredibly personal. Is it rooted in your memories of skiing holidays?
I started as a ski filmmaker. So when I was between 20-25 I was filming skiing in The Alps and in North America. That’s actually how I got into filmmaking. In the beginning I was much more interested in skiing than filmmaking but then the filming took over.

Later I had been looking for a way to get back into the ski environment and to make a feature in a ski resort but it’s quite hard because it’s such a kitsch world with the neon colours, the lights, the money and stuff like that, so when the avalanche scene came up I was very happy because I could turn things upside down.

I saw a YouTube clip of a group of people at an outdoor restaurant in The Alps and I was really fond of the three seconds that went from joyful sharing to nervous laughter and then to screaming and total panic

Courtesy of Artificial Eye.

The story hinges on the avalanche scene, a huge spectacle at the begging. Did you envision the film as a sort of psychological inversion of the disaster movie?
What I like about it, of course, is that there is no real catastrophe and then you have the actions of the father. No one got hurt but still [the avalanche] changed everything. I saw a YouTube clip a long time ago of a group of people at an outdoor restaurant in The Alps and I was really fond of the three seconds that went from joyful sharing to nervous laughter and then to screaming and total panic – those different moods were so close to each other.

How did you shoot the avalanche scene? Was it CGI?
The avalanche was shot in British Columbia, then we built up the restaurant in a studio and had the big green screen set up. There was no CGI. It would be very hard to make an avalanche in CGI look good. We had two goals with the film: one was to create the most spectacular avalanche scene in film history. The other goal was to raise the percentage of divorce in society, so [laughs]…

Do you see Tomas’ act of abandoning his family during the avalanche as a primitive urge to survive?
When we think about extreme situations all the references we have are from movies, so I think that one of the most reproduced portraits of man are of man as hero. So when we end up in a situation like that, suddenly we think how can you act in this way? It’s totally wrong but when it comes to a crisis situation it’s just chaos and those who survive are the ones that have the ability to act impulsively.

There’s this myth of Titanic about the captain who sank into to the sea along with his boat, that women and kids were first into the lifeboats, but this isn’t even true in Titanic. So when you look at the percentage of survivors from Titanic to Estonia you can see that men in a certain age are the ones who survived and the ones who died are the women and kids.

It seems like we need those hero portraits to handle trauma, like Titanic was a national trauma, 9/11 was a national trauma, looking for examples where someone was doing something good. But 99 percent of those who survive have guilt because they did unpleasant things to survive.

Courtesy of Artificial Eye.

Tomas sobs hysterically in the hotel, claiming he’s a “victim of his own instinct”. It’s almost comical – was that intended?
Yeah, sure. “A victim of my own instinct” is actually something that the captain of the Costa Concordia literally said when he was trying to defend himself, and of course he is. There’s so much struggle for us humans to try and cover up our instincts and our uncivilized side of ourselves that we’re ashamed to show to other people.

So was the Costa Concordia incident something you saw early on and worked from?
When I had the avalanche idea the Costa Concordia happened, so when the captain said “I fell into the lifeboat” I thought it was very human but also a very silly way of behaving. But you can understand why people say stupid lies like that, and I wanted Tomas to have lies like that. He says “you can’t run in ski boots” for example – totally irrational bullshit that he’s trying to use.

Critics have been quick to draw comparisons with Michael Haneke. Was he your main influence and what do you admire about his work?
I like his films a lot. I think Code Unknown made a big impact on me when I was in film school, but for me another important director is Roy Anderson. Even though we have different styles, what I like about him is that he places the most trivial moments and scenes just next to romantic scenes from the holocaust – just next to them. And maybe just that kind of Scandinavian humour.

[SPOILER ALERT!] There’s no real resolution at the end, when the cigarette is lit. We’re left wondering whether the couple will stay together or not.
I think the question of whether they stay together or not is not what I thought was most interesting about the film. If they stay together or not is not an issue for me. If they will stay together, I think they’d have to adapt to old rules. But the ending for me is like, when you have kids and they ask you ‘do you smoke?’ and you’re like ‘no no no’, but suddenly he says ‘I do’ [laughs] and it’s like, ‘I won’t lie any more, I will not be ashamed of who I am.’

So it’s not a cynical statement about marriage, as some critics have made out.
No, it’s positive. Definitely.

'Force Majeure' is released on 10 April.

Follow Oliver on Twitter: @OliverLunn

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