Masculinity in Crisis: Ruben Östlund on Force Majeure

A perfect bourgeois family is rocked to its core in relationship-in-crisis drama Force Majeure. Director Ruben Östlund describes how his pin-sharp black comedy dissects perceptions of masculinity with laser-like precision

Feature by Patrick Gamble | 31 Mar 2015

“One of the goals of the film is to increase the number of divorces in society,” says Force Majeure's director Ruben Östlund. The 40-year-old Swede isn’t anti-marriage, however. Nor is he overly concerned with the plight of the individual. His latest film is far more interested in the wider forces that guide human instinct. You could call it a sociological experiment. “When I present the film to an audience I always say you can use it as a relationship test, so instead of spending ten or 20 years together maybe first watch this film.”

The pivotal scene in Östlund’s sardonic relationship drama occurs early in its runtime. From a distance we observe a picture-book family enjoying lunch on the patio of a restaurant in the French Alps. In the distance they spot what they believe to be a controlled avalanche. But when the snow threatens to engulf the diners, the father, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), turns and runs, abandoning his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and young children. The inspiration for this scene came to Östlund while viewing a YouTube clip. “It was a video of a family watching an avalanche as it came down the mountain side,” he explains. “They were sharing the experience on their phones and the next moment they were screaming, and panicking and I thought it was so interesting to have those two different moods so close to each other, and they were so ashamed when they had to go back to their seats. I was thinking of following a family from that restaurant and a friend of mine said, ‘OK, but what if only the father runs away?’” A darkly comic satire on human weakness, the drama doesn’t stop here and it’s the wider implications of the father’s cowardice that interest Östlund: “It’s the avalanche that is the main character of the film and I wanted to look at the human beings trying to deal with that.”

Östlund employs a detached perspective throughout, observing events from afar, forcing the audience to question the larger social expectations that dictate how these characters react. “It’s the gender expectations that make Tomas start lying about what he’s done,” he says. Östlund makes no qualms about his fascination with society’s rigid conformity to archaic ideas of masculinity and his film looks to question the state of modern manhood. “How come men have the ability to act instinctively and abandon their kids when it comes to a crisis? Is it about how men can reproduce themselves, because age isn’t an issue, but women have invested so much in their own bodies by bringing up children? Could it be men are not spending that much time at home? Is there a culture difference that causes this kind of behaviour or is it something about the core of our basic survival instinct?” For Östlund the avalanche is merely the catalyst for a larger investigation into gender expectations: “I’m trying to identify a situation where I can say ‘Wow, I might have done the same thing here,’ and I have to ask myself the question of who I am.”

So what would Östlund do if faced with a similar situation? “Well, statistics say that a man of my age would run, because men actually have that ability to act instinctively when it comes to a crisis situation.” But what about that old axiom of ‘woman and children’ first, does that not apply? Östlund has researched numerous maritime disasters, stretching from the ill-fated debut voyage of the Titanic in 1912 to MS Estonia, which sank in the Baltic Sea in 1994, resulting in the loss of 852 lives. His investigation reveals an ugly truth about human behaviour: “The myth about Titanic and the whole women and children first is absolutely false. What actually happens is that it’s the men who survive and women and children are the ones who die. I think it’s interesting when we are struck by our survival instinct that all rational thoughts are put out and survival is put in.”

Östlund might paint a troubling portrait of masculinity but it comes from a place of hope. “In Sweden we have this feminist movement that’s been going very strong and we’ve been talking about gender roles a lot, which certainly affected the way I approach masculinity in the film.” Force Majeure is at times very critical towards its male protagonist, who in one comical scene resorts to crying in the hotel corridor while screaming, “I’m a victim of instincts!” But would Östlund go as far as labelling himself a feminist? His answer is instantaneous and ardent: “Of course, yes. I think a lot of people mix up what feminist means, but a feminist is someone who believes women deserve equal rights to men, and it's absurd that even though we are working on the same things women are still getting less and for some reason we still think that is acceptable! It’s totally strange that we think that way.”

“The myth about Titanic and the whole women and children first is absolutely false. What actually happens is that it’s the men who survive and women and children are the ones who die" – Ruben Östlund

The film opens with the family posing for a family portrait, the photographer directing them, trying to capture the perfect image of the family. Östlund is fascinated by this idea of the perfect nuclear family and the expectations that come with it, especially in a world full of technological advances and the rise of social media. “We have an outside perspective on ourselves all the time now and we’re very aware of what other people are thinking about us. That’s also one of the reasons why shame has such a strong power over us as a species.”

One of these outside perspectives comes in the recurring presence of an omnipresent hotel cleaner, whose presence injects a much-needed class division into a stifling framework of bourgeois self-indulgence. “He’s someone who doesn’t live in a five star hotel, and he watches the existential problems of this middle-class family and he’s wondering what are they doing. He’s almost like an anthropologist.” Östlund positions the cleaner on raised balconies, observing events from above. Clearly class is something that interests him. “I think anything that puts us into a society context is interesting, and class is something that affects people and limits us. I always try to look at the topic from above and I tried to keep that perspective in Force Majeure.”

Östlund may jest that he’s pushing for higher divorce rates, yet the findings of his probing study into human weakness aren’t wholly cynical. Östlund discusses the film’s grand scene of redemption, where Tomas gets the opportunity to assert his masculinity when Ebba seemingly needs rescuing while skiing down the mountain: “For me that is kind of a group therapy ski run where the mother is leading for Tomas to become the strong male leader of the group again. I was interested that she was faking this accident and he had to carry her like in An Officer and a Gentleman, all strong carrying this ‘weak’ woman in his arms. Then he puts her down on the snow and hugs his family and says ‘we made it.’ In a conventional movie this is where it would cut. However, if you wait around for 30 seconds longer they have to deal with everyday life. She has to go back and grab her skis, they have to brush off the snow and pack their things. It’s so painful when you realise the life won’t have an ending when we get our dignity back.”

Force Majeure is released 10 April by Curzon Film World