Friday, December 19, 2014

Ruben Östlund | Turist (Force Majeure)

forced march
by Douglas Messerli

Ruben Östlund (writer and director) Force Majeure (Turist) / 2014

In Swedish, Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film is  titled Turist, suggesting that the family at the center of his work are simply “tourists,” temporarily staying in a spot—in this instance, a ski resort filmed in Les Arcs in Savoie, France—from which they will soon return home. Their travails in this spot, accordingly, may possibly be resolved simply by leaving. But even that exodus, as we realize at this film’s end, may involve difficulties which will lead to longstanding psychological effects.

The English title Force Majeure brings about a whole series of other issues which may, in fact, signify a far different set of issues at play, perhaps even different from those the director wished to project. Usually the term force majeure suggests an “act of God.” But in the case of the avalanche—or potential avalanche—which the family suffers, God has absolutely nothing to do with it. Throughout this tense, would-be family outing, we see and, more importantly, hear the resort’s repeated attempts to prevent just such potentially destructive events by their purposeful exploding of dynamite or recordings of loud explosions in order to set off controlled avalanches before their visitors daily face the slopes. A bit like the mine-sweeping events of war-time troops, “armies” of snowplows and other resort-owned machines patrol the slopes in order to protect the areas from daytime disasters. 
     During the second day of their trip, however, the family, seated on a terrace at lunch, suddenly hears a distant controlled avalanche explosion which appears to have gone awry, as the snow comes cascading closer and closer toward their space before appearing to swallow them up in its wake. In fact, as they later recount their experience, it is merely the fog created by the controlled avalanche that blacks out their vision; snow does not reach their protected spot. But in that instant, all diners were terrified and behaved as if they would soon be swallowed up by the white substance. 
     The family central to this work—Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their children Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren)—are obviously terrified, certain of their deaths. But their reactions are not the ones we might normally expect. Ebba, always the concerned and loving mother, rushes immediately, if a bit tentatively, to scoop up her two children, while Tomas, scooping up his cell phone, rushes away from the space.
     Even though Östlund quite clearly presents us with the facts, we cannot be quite certain, later when husband and wife present two different versions of what happened, what precisely is the truth. If we grant the evidence that Tomas, in his terror, seemingly left the rest of his family behind, we cannot entirely discern his intentions. As his friend, Mats (Kristofer Hivju) attempts to rationalize it, he may have instinctively sought to protect himself first so that he might return and save the family if they were engulfed by the slide. Besides, Mats benevolently argues, we are all indoctrinated by media notions of heroic acts; would any of us truly become heroes if faced with a life or death situation?
      But the issues here, the family soon discovers, were not truly a matter of life or death; it was not a true force majeure, an act of God, but an event controlled by man. Immediately after the fog settles, the family and other diners return to their lunches. It is a non-event at which they can (and do) eventually laugh.
    But the Swedes, as we have come to know from Bergman, can sniff out an existential crisis—particularly when it comes to issues that concern martial relationships—from the most minor of events. And even we too begin to doubt the behavior of this father, who has only joined his family in this “tourist” vacation, the script hints early in the film, because he has spent too many long hours away from them working.
    By day three of their short vacation, Ebba is already seeking time away from her husband in order to sort things out. Who, in fact, is Tomas? Is he the seemingly loving and protective father she has presumed him to be or is he someone closer to being a cowardly self-centered stranger she now suspects him to be. Meeting up with another Swedish woman, who, although married, lives an actively engaged sexual life with other men who she meets along the way, further shakes Ebba’s more traditional notions of behavior, values which, she apparently has not previously questioned. Accordingly, if she now asks herself who her husband really is, she must also ask that question of herself.
    At first, the couple, obviously uncomfortable about speaking of the event—particularly because of their varying notions of what actually happened—determine to let go of the ramifications of Tomas’ behavior. Yet, their children, already sensing something momentous has happened, refuse to silence the event by temporarily rejecting both their parents’ company. Instead of helping to allay their children’s fears, the couple retreat from them at the very moment when they should insist upon a verbal confrontation.
    By the time their friend Matts and his 20-year-old girlfriend arrive, the “non-event” has grown into a sore so painful that Ebba, slightly drunk, can no longer remain silent, telling the entire tale once more, and even proving it through a tape their cellphone has recorded, to show up Tomas as a liar. So powerful are her expressions of pain that even Matts’ girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius) is infected by the psychological disease from which Ebba is suffering, suggesting to Matts that he, too, might not come to help her if such a situation where to occur. The kind and loving Matts, himself having just suffered a divorce, is so upset by her assessment of him that he can no longer sleep.
    The following day, the two males attempt to bond, escaping to the slopes as they try to work out their own sense of failure and guilt. The day’s events end with Tomas finding himself locked out of his own room (he has forgotten the key card) and, ultimately, experiencing temporary mental break-down as he becomes consumed by a feeling of guilt and unworthiness, during which he admits to other affairs and even cheating at cards with his children. He is a fraud, he insists. Throughout his uncontrollable tears, Ebba stands apart in judgment while Tomas’ daughter and son—suffering from their own fears of their parents possible divorce—try to console him with their hugs, finally insisting that Ebba join them. It is a nearly unwatchable scene, as the family, sprawled out on the floor, attempts to administer aid to one of their own, like an necessary limb that has suddenly become broken. 
     What we soon begin to realize through this series of events is that these all too-human figures are using the natural world (a possible act of God) as an explanation and cover for their own selfish natures and their failures within. However, while at least Tomas has admitted to his failures, Ebba stands apart in self-righteousness. 
     Perhaps we must understand the concept of force majeure less as a natural force than as a legality, like the clause contained in many contracts that exempts individuals from liability or obligation due to extraordinary events of circumstance beyond their control. What Ebba has not comprehended in assessing her husband’s behavior is that, in his instinctual behavior, he has acted without any conscious intention. If one is hit in the knee, the knee will jerk, perhaps even hurting anyone in its path, without the individual willingly or consciously intending to. In short, it becomes an issue of the separation of mind (will) and body (instinct). Matts argues for this very separation when he admits to Tomas that after years of mental therapy, a simple scream emanating within his chest helped to cure him. 
     Yet Ebba clearly cannot make this distinction. As a strong-willed and intellectualized woman, she believes that she can and has been able to control all of her bodily desires and reactions. Which is precisely, perhaps, why she continues to blur the line between the natural world and human nature. On the final day of their “tourist” trip, the family once again joins up for one last outing. But this time a deep fog has descended upon the slope, and their vision extends only a few feet ahead. Logically, they should return back to the lodge, but it is clear they all feel they must play out events in order, in some inexplicable manner, to prove they can, if nothing else, outmaneuver the natural world in which they feel trapped. Determined to take the lead, Tomas suggests he go first to check out the territory, with Harry and Vera following and Ebba after to guard their children from behind. At their final stopping point, the director gradually reveals through the fog the outlines of Tomas, Harry and Vera, who stand for an excruciatingly long time awaiting Ebba. Finally, it is clear she is not going to join them. Commanding the children to remain in place, Tomas, removing his skies, returns to find his wife, calling out her name. Again, a tortuously long few moments pass, but eventually he does come back into the picture, carrying Ebba. She has apparently fallen or become lost, but her immediate recovery suggests that it may instead have been a test; her husband’s playing the savior satisfies her that he is still a masculine force upon who she can depend.* Their family unit, accordingly, has been restored, as they again become simple tourists ready to return home. 
    What might have been the end of many films at first irritated me. Was Östlund really willing to close his purposely problematic film with such a predictable and “staged” ending. If such behavior might satisfy Ebba, it could not, clearly, salve an intelligent audience’s wounds. What might have been the final scene of the film shows the tourists on the bus making their way down the long and twisting road to the valley below.
    But suddenly something unexpected happens. The driver, apparently another lover of Ebba’s casual acquaintance, is clearly drunk, discovering that he is unable to maneuver the vehicle around the torturous turns of the road. Forced to back up, the bus almost teetering over the chasm below, the driver momentarily stalls the bus’s motor. A second turn ends just as disastrously, and by this time numerous of the passengers are growing fearful for their lives. Ebba, in particular, becomes alarmed by the near-misses of the bus from sliding over the edge of the high cliff, and, expressing her dread, moves forward—without her children or husband— demanding the driver let her off. He refuses. But the third time he fails to make a turn, she convinces him to open the door, and she escapes. A moment later, the rest of the bus passengers (with the exception of Ebba’s acquaintance) rush forward to escape as well. 
     Matts, displaying the behavior of a wise councilor speaking out against the others’ mad rush to escape, reminds everyone to slow down, allowing children and mothers to exit first. Once they have left the vehicle, the driver moves forward and, presumably, makes his way down the mountain without further incident. 
     Not only has Ebba apparently acted without thought for the rest of her family members, but has had an effect upon the entire “community” who shared the bus; suddenly all are faced with the fact they that they no longer have any means of transportation down the seemingly endless route to another human outpost. Children and adults equally must now engage upon a grueling trek through nature, a kind of “forced march,” precipitated by Ebba’s personal fears.
    If Tomas previously acted in a way that led him to separate himself from the community and family, Ebba’s self-righteous outrage for the driver’s behavior involves both her family and her fellow riders, but this time in a negative way that perhaps endangers the group’s survival. We cannot know how their journey down the mountain will end. And we can only imagine how her equally selfish act might later affect her family and how the legal document of their marriage, presumably without a clause of force majeure, will be affected. 
    My theater-going companion seemed outraged by my reading, declaring that Ebba has not created the problem, but the drunken bus driver, arguing that she was innocent. Yet, I reminded him, she was the one who insisted on leaving the bus—evidently with or without the children. Although it was clear they might be endangered, in fact once they left the bus, the driver appears to recover and makes his way down the mountain without further ado. Innocence is precisely her problem; she sees herself apart from the evils of the world, unable to fess up to her own abandonment of family, admit to her own fears and face her personal duplicities. Like many Americans, I argue, Ebba uses innocence as an excuse.
     What Östlund makes clear, I would argue, is that the ego (encapsulated in Ebba’s conscious and willful personal decisions) can be far more dangerous than the id (represented by Tomas’ subconsciously-motivated escape from danger, a movement away from the communal world). If Tomas’ act pulls at the fabric of the social order, Ebba’s actions result in a troubling incidence of “herd mentality,” which, in the name of the social good and protection, actually leads those around her into a horrifying status quo that endangers human progress.**
     If Östlund’s film, at moments, is overtly didactic, it deeply engages us, nonetheless, in issues that both explore and transcend gender stereotypes, and force us to consider our own notions of who we are underneath our everyday exteriors.

*This conclusion, however, is clearly open to interpretation. Just after the film ended, my theater-going companion, Pablo, asked: “Did Ebba purposely fall behind to test her husband?” confirming my own views.
**We have earlier observed Ebba, as I mention earlier, in discussion with her promiscuous acquaintance, rail out again
the friend’s sexual choices. Ebba clearly supports  more normative notions of family and sexual behavior.  

Los Angeles, December 19, 2014

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