'Force Majeure': When a man fails a woman, and everyone else

Tomas, Ebba, Vera and Harry pose for a picture.
Tomas, Ebba, Vera and Harry pose for a picture at the start of their Alpine skiing holiday in "Force Majeure."
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

In the unlikely event you found yourself in the middle of an avalanche with your family, what would you do?

That question is central to the Swedish film "Force Majeure," nominated for the Golden Globe for best foreign language film.

"Force Majeure" starts with members of a Swedish family arriving in the French Alps for a ski vacation. On the first day, decked out in their ski gear they run into a tourist photographer.

"Don't worry, it's free!" he assures them. "It'll make you a beauty of a picture. It will take just two minutes."

"OK" they say, although they aren't enthusiastic.

As the family poses, parents Tomas and Ebba and their children Vera and Harry, all look uncomfortable. They don't know it, but they are embarking on a very difficult week as director Ruben Ostlund's script unfolds.

Swedish director Ruben Ostlund
Swedish director Ruben Ostlund makes films which delve into the mysteries of human behavior.
Johan Bergmark / Courtesy Walker Art Center

"What I like about my films is that they one moment can be very humorous and the next moment very tragical," said Ostlund, who will appear this weekend at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. "And that they are raising questions, and that they are not giving any easy answers."

Ostlund said that in the modern media world, where there are clues about the film all over the Internet, it doesn't make sense to worry about spoilers. So he's quite happy to talk about how "Force Majeure" pivots on a particular moment.

"When I talk about it, I always talk about the avalanche incident," he said.

On the second day the family sits down to lunch at an outdoor restaurant half way up the mountain. They enjoy the sun, and the food arrives. But then they hear explosions in the distance as a controlled avalanche is set off across the valley.

"In the beginning everybody's cheering and like 'Wow!' And thinking 'This is beautiful'" Ostlund said.

But the snow keeps coming, and the cheers become screams.

"And the last thing we see before everything turns white is that the father in the family is running away from his wife and his kids and we see that the mother is trying to lift up her children and screaming after him."

Then the avalanche roar subsides. Although it produced a dense snow cloud, it came nowhere near the restaurant. As quickly as the crisis blew up — it's gone.

"So 20 seconds later we have a blue sky again," Ostlund said, "and Tomas has to return to his table and to his wife and his kids. And now he has a really, really big problem, of course."

In one way, Tomas has behaved naturally by running to safety. But as a husband and father, he has failed. Ostlund spins out that problem for the rest of the film.

"It raised questions about gender, gender expectations, about the role of the man, and the role of the woman, and also about the nuclear family in general, I think," he said.

Ostlund said he likes to delve into the sociological in his work. He wants people to relate to the story and wonder how they would behave given similar circumstances.

Conflict-free time
The only time the family members in Ruben Ostlund's "Force Majeure" aren't in conflict is when they are asleep.
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

"I think that my best experience with films is always when I need to discuss it with someone afterwards," the director said. "I'm trying to aim for that with my films also."

That's part of the reason why Ostlund is coming to Minnesota, where the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis will show three of his feature films this weekend. He'll chat with audiences after the screenings Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.

Ostlund also is in the United States because it's award season. A winner at Cannes, "Force Majeure" was nominated for a Golden Globe, but many people were surprised when it was passed over for an Oscar nomination. As he travels, he's noticed very different reactions to the film.

"Some people see it as a really, really tragic movie, and horrifying to watch almost," he said. "And other people are thinking of it as a comedy."

The strange thing he says is he often got the tragic reaction at home in Scandinavia. For some reason it's people in the United States who think it's darkly funny. That, Ostlund believes, is worth discussing.