The Real Disaster

in 17th Motovun International Film Festival

by Dean Kotiga

First they gave us Victor Sjöström. Then Alf Sjöberg, Bergman and Vilgot Sjöman came. Roy Andersson followed, and we still have him, but Ruben Östlund is the most important name in Swedish cinema today, and he’s the one that early 21st century European cinema will be most remembered for.

He started in the 90s with some skiing films, then some documentaries at the turn of the millennium, and then at last in 2004 came his first feature, The Guitar Mongoloid. After four years he made a second feature named Involuntary (2008) and three years ago he directed Play (2011), which may be one of the best films of the century so far. In between, he made some shorts (of which we should mention at least Incident by a Bank, 2009, awarded at the 60th Berlinale with the Golden Bear for Best Short Film), and this year he released his fourth feature film, Force Majeure, which shows some links with his earliest works. Maybe he’s rethinking his beginnings.

The plot of Force Majeure (also known as Tourist) is pretty simple: a Swedish family travels to the French Alps to enjoy a few days of skiing. The sun is shining and the slopes are spectacular but, during lunch at a mountainside restaurant, an avalanche turns everything upside down. With diners fleeing in all directions, mother Ebba calls for her husband Tomas as she tries to protect their children. Tomas, meanwhile, is running for his life… The anticipated disaster has failed to occur, yet the family’s world has been shaken to its core: a question mark now hangs over the father, in particular. Tomas and Ebba’s marriage hangs in the balance as Tomas struggles desperately to reclaim his role as family patriarch.

Östlund chose an unconventional though simple story as a platform, not only to rethink the position/tradition/use of a male in contemporary society, but also and more importantly, to rethink the position/tradition/use of a movie. His minimalistic but immensely detailed approach to each frame catches the spectator’s eye and we are – as in his previous movie Play – not only watching but participating in what happens in front of us. We can’t escape the fact that we are part of the whole story, and it’s our decision as to how to get through it – whether we will be emotionally blocked, or laugh and write the incident off. Some see Force Majeure as “observational comedy”, and though it is indeed an “observational” movie in many senses, it is definitely not a comedy. The anticipated disaster which hangs in the air from the beginning – the avalanche that will hurt some or all of the characters – does not happen, but this is unimportant. The most significant avalanche is the one which occurs between the couple. Our gaze is constantly being distracted from this fact, and we have to struggle and focus on the movie to apprehend the overwhelming suspense of the whole situation, and to realize that the literal avalanche is the most irrelevant thing in the film. Everything which needs to happen has already happened in the first 20 minutes.

Once again, Östlund has made a truly brilliant gem which will certainly stay with us for a long time.

Edited by Lesley Chow