Over the last ten years, few filmmakers have pushed society’s buttons while contributing to the art of filmmaking with the same intensity as Ruben Östlund. This is the man who in 2008’s Involuntary showed us a man introducing the Swedish flag on his butt as a sign of distorted masculinity, in 2011’s Play made Swedish society wonder just how tolerant they were as he diffused the lines between race and class. A provocateur of the highest order, the themes in Östlund’s films often make audiences and critics overlook his groundbreaking technical work. He uses digital elements to create worlds that are both real and cinematic, an effect one can’t help but compare to what Hitchcock did with rear projections.
In Force Majeure (Turist) he gives us an avalanche the likes of which we’ve rarely seen onscreen, and while we know we’re watching something “fake”, he manipulates us just so that we, too, are terrified and anxious as we see the roaring snow lunge towards the characters onscreen. A former ski instructor, who then made films about skiing, Östlund returns to snow to tell a humorous tale of marital disintegration. Force Majeure, which won rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival, is now making its debut in the States and has also been selected as Sweden’s official submission for the Academy Awards.
We speak with the director during his visit to New York, and he is quite eloquent about his techniques, intentions, and the main missions he set for himself when making Force Majeure.
I grew up in the tropics, so I’ve always found snow sports to be particularly strange. Force Majeure highlights how alien-like they can seem. You shoot the film as if it was set on a strange planet.
[laughs] I’m very happy you saw that, especially since you’re not from that environment. People who are from that environment can recognize themselves, but I really wanted to highlight the absurdity of man trying to control the power of nature … building tracks in the snow, causing avalanches, and also how a ski resort, in a way, is like a ghetto up in the mountains. I really didn’t want to have a realistic image of the ski resort, I wanted it to be on an abstract level because it truly is an absurd world. It’s all these well-to-do people, dressed in neon colors, wearing mirror goggles, it’s so kitschy!
When I left the ski world to start film school, I’d always looked forward to going back into this environment and having a film take place in such a setting. It was very hard because how do you mess up the lives of these people who always keep control of their lives?
There is a fantastic scene with the children playing with a remote control UFO, which made me wonder if you’re interested in making science fiction films.
Maybe, but I guess if you make sci-fi, you have to treat an environment like this in a completely different way. You have to treat it like it’s total normality. I don’t consider my films as genre movies.
Which makes them very difficult to describe. Trying to explain Force Majeure to someone, the best I could think of was saying that it was like Charade meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Is it easy for you to pitch your projects?
I’m quite good at pitching my films. There’s also something about the tourism industry that is so based in the nuclear family, so to see the struggles of a relationship like in Virginia Woolf, but set on a ski resort on a holiday, is a very good setup. People get divorced after they come back from holidays, so here you see all the problems. They’re supposed to be having the best family time, and instead, they’re dealing with all the issues they’ve ignored during the whole year.
If you look at tourism commercials, for example, you’ll always see the woman sitting in a sun chair with a drink, and she’s looking at the father playing with the kids. The holidays are when the man has to pay back his family for all his time at work, so I think it suits quite well to let this drama play here. Also, you know when you’re arguing, and the hotel room is too small, so you have to go out in the hallway? [laughs]
You’re good at pointing out ridiculous behaviors of heterosexual couples, and considering Sweden is so progressive, I wondered if you thought about exploring these same themes with gay couples.
That would have been very, very interesting. It would’ve been fascinating to see if the same conventions applied to heterosexual couples made sense with gay couples.
The battle of the sexes at the center of Force Majeure made me think of all those great Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy movies that would pit men and women against each other. What’s the strangest reaction you’ve heard from people after watching Force Majeure?
One of my goals with force Majeure was to raise the percentage of divorce in society [laughs]. The first goal was to create the most spectacular avalanche in film history, and the second was to raise the divorce rate.
In Sweden, everyone was so provoked when I said that. I love saying things like that … but I heard about a couple who went into the movie together and, coming out of the theater, went in opposite directions because they had been arguing about who was wrong in the film. That made me happy [laughs]. You can use this film to test your relationship instead of spending years together and then breaking up. Mybe Force Majeure can help you!
What kind of insight do you give your actors when you present them with the screenplay?
I’m always looking for a dilemma, so I never tell them who’s right or wrong. I just want them to deal with the situation. These characters are trapped in their gender roles, and they can’t break free from those roles, so I discussed that with my actors. How do we get Tomas to behave as stupidly as possible here?
One of my favorite scenes is when he uses this ridiculous male rhetoric to justify his behavior. He’s always trying to let rhetoric control the situation. I guess I always look for what’s possible. Could this happen? If it’s not possible, it loses power and loses the audience.
You do use rhetoric a lot in your films. They’re all about perspective and things changing based on the eye of the beholder, which makes me think that, in a way, your films are actually about film criticism and interpretation.
I think it’s different with different movies. Play, for example, created a huge debate about racism in Sweden. I was accused of being a racist, so I guess, as you said, you will judge the topics in Play based on your beliefs. You can detect if the viewer is a liberal or a conservative based on how they describe the film. I think people agree about the topics in Force Majeure. or at least about what the film is about.
Let’s discuss the political themes in your films. In Involuntary, we have that kid who is afraid to say he did something wrong. In Play, we have the story of the kids who get bullied and robbed. These are the same children who will grow up and vote against immigration or become corrupt.
I think my films are political because everything is politics. In Play, there is also a class issue. Skin color and class are connected. It’s undeniable. It’s the same in Force Majeure. All these Swedes who have a lot of money are the ones we have learned we have to look up to because they have succeeded.
I wanted to change the perspective and have us look down on them. Do we wanna live in the kind of hell they’re living in? In the structure of American films, for example, we have a family living in peace, and then an external threat arrives, and the man has to use violence, even if he doesn’t want to, to protect his family and regain peace.
So it’s like a societal consensus that this is the lifestyle we should have, and we don’t look at it from a historical perspective. The concept of a nuclear family was used for the first time in the forties. It was an invention as we moved from larger families and cut our links to the previous generation. We had to invent a lifestyle to give them new priorities.
So the nuclear family is very fragile because if the parents don’t work well together, the kids are exposed to danger. While in a large family, a grandparent could take responsibility for the kids. I’m very interested in the historical aspect of family, to take another look at why we think of this structure as something fundamental.