A Season in Hell
What is it that reveals a crisis in a marriage and what is it that creates it? These might be the twin questions Ruben Ostlund sets out to answer in Force Majeur. This film about a Swedish couple and their two children on a skiing holiday in the Alps, is a variation on Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. But where Bergman emphasizes the encounter over numerous years with telling close-ups, Ostlund attends to the couple over the space of several days while also keeping an aesthetic distance. There are scenes of intimacy here, but the focus resides in remaining aloof, as if keeping with the mise-en-scene of the environment itself. This is a controlled resort in many senses of the term and exemplified in the avalanche scene that looks like a catastrophe happening in front of our eyes, but is actually carefully manipulated by the resort to maximize the best skiing possibilities. As the avalanche seems about to engulf those sitting eating lunch on the verandah, so husband Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) grabs to his mobile phone and scarpers rather than looking out for his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and kids. Is this cowardice and self-preservation kicking in, and should we judge his character as weak on the basis of it? His wife certainly thinks so as she discusses events with Tomas and another couple, seeing Tomas’s disappearing act as a moment of weakness, even betrayal. Yet the director when interviewed says “women and children first is a myth. We love to tell stories about heroes, but the fact is, the ones who survive haven’t been heroes; they’ve trampled over people.” (Sight and Sound)
If we accept that if our survival instinct demands selfishness, then what about our sexual instinct, as later in the film Tomas admits to his wife that he has committed acts of adultery? It might be acceptable that he protects himself in a moment that Ostlund reckons is humanly natural, but if we see a character who also acts selfishly in other areas of his life, do we not have to accept that here is a very weak character indeed? As Tomas reveals in a flood of tears that he’s cheated on his wife and even cheats at games with his kids, we watch a youngish man with the perfect life incapable at all of being the perfect human. Some saw the scene as going over the top; with Ostlund wondering whether this was partly why the film failed to win a major award at Cannes. “I definitely think it was. But if I had taken that out I would have regretted it later on, because I know that the scene forces people to look at the film in a different way. It would be a much easier film to watch without it – less disturbing.” (Sight and Sound)
Partly what makes the scene disturbing is that it is a twofold rejection of the heroic. If we usually expect from cinema that a central character will act heroically, then this act of heroism will be augmented often by values elsewhere. The hero defines himself through action, resonating in other areas of his life too: if the man saves the damsel in distress, this can lead to the marriage between the hero and the damsel as he proves his manly worth in action and finds its reward in getting the girl, not only saving her. But Ostlund is interested in a sort of bourgeois cowardice: in seeing modern life as about quiet failures rather than great deeds. “In Norway,” Ostlund says, “some articles didn’t believe me when I spoke about the statistics of how men reacted to a set of ferry catastrophes. They said, “No, this can’t be true.” They pulled out statistics from other catastrophes. But it was more about how I was talking about the film in media. One of the reasons I got very interested in this topic is, if you look at statistics, men of a certain age are the ones who survive ferry catastrophes.” (Slant). Tomas is just another statistically ordinary human being, but that makes him neither a hero nor a villain. “I definitely have empathy for him. At the same time, I think he’s extraordinarily silly. But this kind of lifestyle—I mean, just look at the electronic toothbrush. We’ve reached a level of comfort, and we’re allowing ourselves to let relationship problems be the main focus of our lives. “ (Film Comment) Now perhaps men have always been more self-preserving than life-saving, but there does seem to be in Ostlund’s approach an attempt to understand contemporary man rather than man. There is a feeling here that Thomas is a figure of his time: someone who will have all the right gear but not always be in the right frame of mind.
Ostlund’s approach echoes perhaps Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Scandinavian project: the six volume My Struggle, with something ironic in the title when we follow man’s domestic life in many of the passages. In Man in Love, for example, the narrator says that while the translation he was working on was “tedious work…it was still a hundred times more interesting and rewarding than…nappy changing and children’s activities.” This is the domesticated man stripped of his masculinity, and Tomas’s tears here serve a similar function. He is supposed to be the man of the house but comes across instead as the weakest link. As the film opens with a series of short sequences between the credits of family photos taken by a photographer, so this is the perfect family frozen in photographic posterity, but it as though the photograph’s purpose isn’t to immortalize a happy moment in time, but create a moment which can pass for happiness. As the photographer insists Tomas put his arm around his wife’s shoulder this is happiness not so much recollected in tranquillity, but manipulated into existence.
However is this not the purpose of contemporary living, to create a lifestyle over a life, to suggest that it isn’t truth that we seek but a form out of which we can claim to be happy, contented and lucky? After all to be holidaying at a ski resort indicates people are part of a western existence that excludes most of the citizens of the world; it doesn’t mean those holidaying there have a fortune – but they are fortunate, a distinction to be made between the comfortable and the rich. When Joseph Stiglitz in Vanity Fair says “Americans have been watching protests against oppressive regimes that concentrate massive wealth in the hands of an elite few. Yet in our own democracy, 1 percent of the people take nearly a quarter of the nation’s income—an inequality even the wealthy will come to regret” this is not the class to which Tomas and his family belong. That is the privileged class; Tomas is merely a member of the fortunate class as the film at several moments plays up certain social distinctions; never more evident than in the scene where Tomas and his wife Ebba argue outside their hotel room. This is a vast building with several floors, and where people on the upper levels can look at the floor below and see people in the hallway. There is no cutaway here to anyone witnessing the dispute, but shortly afterwards, after we see Tomas and wife Ebba in the bathroom, and after the films cuts to snow ploughs working the snow etc, the film shows Tomas standing in the hall before cutting to a night cleaner smoking a cigarette in this most sterile of environments. While he stands watching Tomas, Ebba comes out of the room as they continue their dispute before asking the man to give them some privacy. Watching the scene we can’t help but feel a social gap between the comfortably off ski resort dwellers, and those there to serve their needs. Here the man is all too visible when his function is to remain invisible, someone to service their room rather than attend to their conversation. The open plan nature of the hotel, with each floor available to be seen from the floor above and below creates a sense of transparency that we might believe has been designed to create a space where everyone can easily get to know each other, and see each other, but in this instance it somehow breaks the rules: here we have the cleaner looking on, breaking no doubt a more conspicuous rule as he does so: standing smoking a cigarette. We can’t help but wonder what is on this man’s mind as he sees the attractive, well-off young couple arguing. As they tell him they want to be alone he stubs out the cigarette in the ashtray: a man doing what he is told, but not quite subservient to the demands placed upon him.
The scene is echoed late in the film by the second great set-piece after the avalanche sequence: the one on the bus. Here the family is leaving the resort with friends who have joined them there, and the bus driver seems incapable of taking the tight corners on this high road as the film cuts between the driver’s anxiety trying to control the situation, and the passengers’ fears that he doesn’t quite know what he is doing. Some might see in both scenes improbability serving dramatic exigencies. Would a cleaner really smoke in a hotel at a ski resort; would there really be so incompetent a bus driver allowed to ferry passengers up and down the mountain? Maybe we need to say no more than that there are always people willing to flout rules, and people who no matter how usually competent they are in their jobs have moments where that efficiency is called into question. If we can suspend a degree of disbelief, or better still accept in life what we often refuse to accept in film, then the film works a brilliant scene of suspense cinema. As the driver steers the bus this way and that, the viewer is lurched forwards and backwards as if on one of those flight simulation machines. Ostlund manages to make each sway and judder resonate so that while we might believe some of the people on the bus are rude and obnoxious as they wonder who the heck happens to be driving the thing, we are viscerally tossed around and share their plight physiologically. In the earlier scene with the cleaner we might be more inclined to side with him not because there is anything sympathetic in his demeanour, but that we have more clearly a dichotomy between the haves and the have nots. The bus driver suggests a much more sympathetic presence: we can feel for his plight while we fret for the passenger’s lives. But as the film gives us no close-up and frontal shot of the driver, and numerous shots of the passengers looking worried, we sense their fear more than the driver’s anxiety. But again it feels like a scene of social class emphasized: between the fortunate passengers looking like their luck might be up, and the driver whose job, like the cleaner’s, is to be as invisible as possible: driving them smoothly from a to b.
It is as though Ostlund wants to find a first principle in the notion of selfishness, and wonders what is it in ‘man’ that might be fundamentally self-preserving, and what is it in society that generates this selfishness. Is modern western society more selfish for example, than others? In the Sight and Sound interview Ostlund mentions a story he saw in a newspaper. “There was a party [given by] a couple who had a pool at the house.” Their three year old son fell in and couldn’t swim; the wife asked why he was just standing there and the father replied: “But my iphone is in my pocket.” This seems less an example of fundamental self-preservation’; more material preservation. It is as though the gap between self and materialism becomes so flimsy that it can askew priorities to a horrifying degree. When Tomas goes for his phone, disappearing rather than staying and shepherding his kids away from the danger zone, we might assume that Ostlund wants to access primal fear and material attachment. The situation he describes from the newspaper seems almost to lend itself to a comedy sketch: an example of misplaced priorities in extreme form. In the scene from Force majeur however it does capture the primal at least as well as it reflects the material. This lies, like the sequence on the bus, partly on the film’s form. Ostlund very successfully conveys to the viewer an avalanche sweeping towards us just as it sweeps towards Tomas and his family. Our instinct as we watch the scene will be to flinch; to shrink away from the event rather than immediately worry about those in the situation. It isn’t that we identify with Tomas at this moment: we are identifying with fear. In the example Ostlund gives of the mobile phone, one reason we might find it comedic, if it weren’t so awful a story, resides in the absence of this primal dimension. If it had been a tsunami and the father grabbed his phone and took off, we would partly credit it to this primal fear that the director conveys to the viewer; but the father standing around protecting his phone over saving his son’s life is a new layer to the human comedy: i phone therefore I am.
A number of reviews however have played up the comedic aspect of Force majeur. Ryan Gilbey in The New Statesman called it a “knowing comedy of manners”; Jonathan Romney in The Observer talks about the film being “laced with sardonic comedy”. In The Scotsman Alistair Harkness believed the “film often very funny.” Yet taking into account our differentiation between the banal self-protectiveness of the father in the mobile phone incident, and the instinctive terror one might feel as an avalanche or tsunami comes towards us, we can see the former indicates a need to see it as comedy; the latter has within it an inherent drama that makes us see the terrifying over the humorous. When later with friends Ebba discusses what happened, any laughter she offers is shot through with scorn: Tomas was more interested in his mobile than his children she proposes. But we’ve witnessed the incident not as a funny moment and her response with the friends is one of bitter dismay more than anecdotal humour. She laughs as if to say what sort of man has she married, knowing this isn’t a source of immediate jocularity, but for an enquiry into the nature of their relationship. This is the Bergmanesque scene of a marriage that leaves everyone in a state of discomfort.
So if we accept the film isn’t much of a comedy, we might nevertheless acknowledge that there are numerous moments that imply the comedic, evident in Ostlund’s remark about the electric toothbrush. We might also think of the moment where the parents and the two kids are lying on the bed together, a scene that invokes familial togetherness, but also could make us think of something out of the Smurfs as they sleep with their more or less matching blue skiing undergarments. This is humour as object status; consistent with the notion of the i phone being the most important thing in one’s life. In a passage from The System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard talks about the ‘gizmo’: “the gizmo does have an operational value, but whereas the function of a machine is explicit in its name, a gizmo, in the context of the functional paradigm, is always an indeterminate term…” The gizmo often gives the impression of being useful but hardly necessary; presumably why Ostlund sees the electric toothbrush as ridiculous, just as we find the matching blue undergarments amusing. When Baudrillard says “…from Sunday-afternoon pottering to James Bond-style super gadgetry, there extends a panoply of wondrous accessories culminating in the immense industrial output of everyday objects…” this is the ever expanding world of the functional serving the irrelevant. How often do people show off the new app on their phone, a remote control lighting system or a GPS that talks back to them? They are shown to us as sources of consumerist amusement, as a way of saying isn’t this fun but let us not pretend it is of great importance. Here is where the tempered comedy of Force majeur lies: in a general mise-en-scene that says we can’t easily take the environment seriously (and the whole film is set at the ski resort), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the events seriously.
This is also where we she could be careful not to assume the scene where Tomas breaks down and cries is a moment of humour. We feel that Ostlund wants us to take the emotional tenor of the film very seriously indeed, and to take the film’s mise-en-scene more lightly, or rather to give to the film’s visual style a connotative function beyond the diegesis. If we earlier invoked Stanley Kubrick it rests on this issue. In an early moment where Tomas and Ebba’s son Harry goes to the toilet, the image creates three planes through camera placement. We see the boy urinating at the urinal, then there is a room beyond that one where he washes his hands, and then another room where the camera is placed. The three rooms creating three planes emphasises the distance between the child and the camera. It gives us a Kubrickian sense of removed observation, exacerbated by the steely grey colour scheme throughout the space we are watching. What makes the film important is its chilly emotional through-line not its visual assertiveness. We notice this too in a number of scenes in the hotel, outside the bedroom. Whether it is Ebba moving along the corridor, or Tomas sitting outside the room, the camera captures the pine toned walls all of a piece and remains removed from the characters as they either come towards the camera or the camera remains at a distance. As in Kubrick’s work we are given a sense of commentary in the framing that leaves us distant from the emotional turmoil of the characters, but at the same time Ostlund wishes for this removal not to be the most important aspect of the film: it is a visual attempt at acknowledging alienating worlds that can create alienating feelings. This might seem like a dream holiday, but Ostlund seems to indicate it can lead to a living hell. It is a variation of the Overlook hotel, where Jack Nicholson in The Shining thinks that he can take off with his family to write his book, only to find that he discovers the inner demon in himself.
Thus the visual tenor of the film wants to release the emotional chasm in people’s lives. The film might be punctuated by Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’, but it is clearly set only in one: a season in hell perhaps. “All good marriages allow for exceptions” Nietzsche once said, but we feel Ebba is not a woman who would allow for such a possibility, and we might think of Nietzsche’s remark in a twofold manner and that returns us to our opening gambit about what creates a fissure in a marriage and what reveals it. We have of course Tomas admitting he’s had an affair, but we might also feel that his action where he leaves as the avalanche takes place is an exception too. Why should an instinctive response be taken as a reflection of character? After all Kuhnke, when asked how he would react, replied: “Well, I’m not trained for those things so I don’t know how I would react. But according to statistics, I would run.” However Tomas’s common cowardice is exacerbated by his pride. “I do hope that I could be strong enough to reveal my weaknesses. The problem with Tomas is that he can’t live with the picture of him being like that.” (Twitch) Ebba can’t help but see in Tomas a man who offers a few too many exceptions, while being the sort of woman who can’t allow for any at all. Evidently Tomas offers numerous little lies to his wife, apparent when the four of them are lying on the bed in the hotel room and his phone goes. He ignores it, but after Ebba goes into the bathroom it rings again and he sends a quick text as his kids are asleep next to him. His wife asks if he is on the phone and he says he isn’t but as she pokes her head round the door he laughs, as if yet again being found out.
Ebba’s role in the relationship is clearly to hold the family together and this takes various manifestations. Early in the film she gets chatting with a fellow holiday maker, Charlotte, and is surprised that though the woman has two children aged eleven and thirteen she is holidaying alone. Later Charlotte and Ebba talk and Charlotte makes clear she sleeps with other men and that her partner does likewise. Shocked and disturbed, Ebba can’t believe that this is possibly good for the children, even good for Charlotte and her partner. It is not so much that Ebba might not have a point; more that she can’t seem to countenance another point of view. She seems less interested in asking how Charlotte can do it, than making clear that she clearly couldn’t, no matter if there is a scene later where she is talking to a friend on the phone about a friend’s boredom in a relationship after five years and seems more receptive to unfaithfulness. Yet it seems a moment where she wants to generate insecurity in Tomas. She has refused to answer his calls to her mobile all evening, and looks keen to emasculate an ever weaker man.
There is a certain irony to the scene with Charlotte that will be reflected later on when Tomas admits to affairs of his own, and this resides in Ebba’s narrow way of looking at the world which might seem so claustrophobic that someone would understandably want to go outside the marriage. It isn’t so much that she ought to have affairs too; just that she doesn’t seem enquiring enough to know it is possible. Charlotte backs off, aware that she hasn’t been given the freedom to express herself; merely to condemn herself in Ebba’s eyes. If we side with Charlotte it won’t necessarily mean we side with infidelity over fidelity, more explanation over condemnation. Near the end of the film this idea that Charlotte cares at least as much for others as herself is reflected in the bus sequence where she decides to stay on the coach, helping the driver navigate his way down the hill. In this scene where Ebba hysterically reacts, Charlotte calmly reassures and we might come away from the film thinking that Tomas may be a coward, but is Ebba a passive aggressive bully? She wants the nuclear family so much that she is a split atom herself, bouncing around inside her own head holding on to her notion of what family life is at any price.
If we have invoked Polanski it rests on certain pressure cooker situations, enclosed environments, bringing out certain traits and qualities. Ebba is beautiful, loving, caring and considerate: she does right by her kids when the avalanche hits, and it is clear that she has been utterly faithful to Tomas. How could we possibly come away from the film seeing her as anything but a victim? Yet is that not a dimension of passive aggression; and does Tomas’s flawed character exemplified when he lights a cigarette in the closing scene as if to admit he is a man with many weaknesses, a more likable human being?
Our take on the scenes from the marriage that we see might depend on how we view marriage in the first place. Is it an institution that allows for exceptions in various ways, or is it a rigid system where people have to live up to it so that their personalities are subsumed within it: becoming petrified and brittle? Tomas is weak, cowardly, sometimes dishonest and pathetically proud, but there is a complicated human being there. In Ebba we see a woman who has played fair by the marriage vows, and would be unlikely to leave her children in a moment of crisis (as Tomas does), nor sleep with other men to satisfy her own pleasure and curiosity as Charlotte does. But we might wonder if she is cold to others partly because she is fixated on her immediate identity: the mother of two children married to a successful, busy man. Early in the film when she meets Charlotte she says Tomas has been focused on work and is now spending a few days with his family, and Tomas responds as a man who knows he is being told what to do, even if it happens to be a moment of leisure. This is Ebba announcing themselves as the perfect family, even if we will see throughout she is married to the less than perfect husband.
While writing on Gone Girl, another recent marriage in crisis film, David Bordwell wonders who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist in a film where both husband and wife show themselves to be terrible individuals. “If you assume that Nick is the film’s protagonist and Amy the antagonist, we have that rare mainstream movie in which the antagonist wins”. If we assume neither is the good guy in the more nuanced and less generic Force majeur, we might nevertheless also wonder who is the hero; who is the villain. Or to put it another way: who is that happens to be destroying the marriage? Is it Tomas with his pride, cowardice and dishonesty, or Ebba with her coldness, bullying and protectiveness? Near the end of the film, in the scene on the bus, the heroes here would be neither Tomas nor Ebba. As the driver incompetently tries to steer the bus down the mountain, lurching it back and forth, it might be Ebba who reacts by asking the driver to drive “more careful”, but this probably makes the problem worse rather than better. When she insists he opens the door and lets her out, the others start rushing for the exit too. But it is Tomas’s friend Mats who insists that women and children leave the bus first, and it is Charlotte who chooses to stay on the bus alone with the driver. Of course Mats can seem the hero here because the situation is not quite so immediately threatening as the avalanche, and Mats has already discussed with Tomas the latter’s moment of weakness. However, it is as if there is a wisdom and sense of resignation in Mats missing from his friend, or that is only now being learned by Tomas. Mats has gone through what we might assume is a tough break-up: now holidaying with his young girlfriend, at one moment he talks to Tomas of spending two years in therapy while his girlfriend jokingly says that it is no wonder his wife wanted a divorce. He looks like a man who has accepted a few more defeats than Tomas; someone who would be unlikely to lie to himself and to others. But if Tomas by the end of the film looks like he will admit to his foibles (evident in the moment where he accepts a cigarette from someone and his son asks his dad if he smokes and Tomas replies, yes), can we say the same of Ebba? From a certain perspective, Ebba is the heroine: she looks like she has done far more than Tomas to keep the family together, but the way she reacts to events seems even more troublesome than Tomas’s. After the avalanche Ebba doesn’t try talking to him about what happened. She responds frostily, and then only brings it up half drunk and in company. When Tomas first cries she thinks his tears aren’t real; when they become so as he admits to being unfaithful she seems unable to deal with this either. Moments later when Tomas is a crumpled mess in the lounge, the kids come to his aid and hug him, telling mummy that she must join them. She does so reluctantly.
We opened by wondering what reveals a crisis in a marriage and what creates it. Force majeur explores well the revelations, but we can only guess at what sits underneath. If it is the case that during an emergency situation statistically most men would act as Tomas does, then this shouldn’t quite be cause for a marital collapse, and somehow it doesn’t seem enough to blame everything on Tomas, no matter his numerous weaknesses of character. “He’s so goddamn pathetic”, he says of himself, “and I can’t live with him any longer.” But while we might understandably see Ebba as the long-suffering wife, somehow this doesn’t quite fit. Could she be the long-torturing one, a woman who has turned Tomas into the man he happens to be as he has tried to be the perfect husband he so manifestly is not?
This is speculation of course, but when Peter Bradshaw calls the film a “disaster movie without a disaster”, it is as though the movie invites us to muse over a marriage that is only presented to us in the ski resort environs. Scenes from a Marriage works very differently: it offers ellipsis instead of contraction. Taking place over a number of years, Bergman’s film leaves us musing over what might have happened in the intervening period, Ostlund’s makes us wonder what has the marriage been like up until this point in time. One reason we might see the film as a cross between a disaster movie and a Bergman work is because it invites speculation rather than offers the spectacular. Though the film is cinematic in its depiction of event (both the avalanche and bus sequence lose a lot of their power on the small screen), it is intimiste in its delineation of character. Its purpose isn’t to create event but to explore what happens after it. If the disaster movie usually creates a series of punctuated excitements, Force majeur is more interested in aftermath. What traumas are revealed by the event, and especially if the catastrophe isn’t a catastrophe at all?
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche says “there is as much wisdom in pain as there is in pleasure: both belong among the factors that contribute the most to the preservation of the species. If pain did not, it would have perished long ago…” Tomas we feel might be willing to absorb pain, but does Ebba still want to repel it? If she is finally the villain of the piece does it rest here, in her fixed ideas about character and marriage? And is she also a character who is somehow at one with this chill environment, a place cold not only in temperature but also in design? Near the end of the film, as they leave the resort, Tomas, Ebba and the kids walks towards the camera in their skiing gear and their sunglasses, looking like a family straight out of a photoshoot. It is an echo of the film’s beginning, where the photographer determines to photograph them into perfection, but now we know better. Yet who would wish this family to retain its ‘air’ of excellence, Tomas or Ebba? If we feel it is the latter rather than the former, and if we believe the film has explored the limitations not only of their perfect life but the notion of it, then Tomas for all his weaknesses and failings, may come across as the more sympathetic of the two. He could seem like the one who could save the marriage from the depths, and not settle for continuing to play it out for the sake of appearances.