Ruben Östlund’s fourth feature film is set in a luxury ski resort in the French Alps where a young bourgeois, picture-perfect Swedish family’s spending their much needed vacation. Father Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), a handsome and busy businessman, mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) who could easily be a supermodel and their beautiful, enthusiastic and somewhat spoiled children (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) seem like a perfect family that’s spending their quality time together and making memories while posing for a resort photographer. They’re rich, they’re beautiful, they’re happy – what could possibly ever go wrong for them?
This is until a controlled avalanche is triggered on the mountainside while they’re eating lunch in a crowded outdoor restaurant – and while everything seems fascinating and exciting at first, a perfect place to be to take pictures and making videos, the cloud of snow just keeps expanding, until some of it actually reaches the patio. People suddenly panic and start to run for their lives – including Tomas, who instinctively grabs his phone and runs away, leaving his wife and children behind. Everything turns out to be okay in the end – but not for our perfect little family, and especially not for Tomas, whose life suddenly turns upside down. In that split second the façade of their perfect family cracks wide open and what follows is an intense and skilfully executed family thriller (with a hint of dark humour) that would make Michael Haneke proud.
Ebba, who in a moment of crisis tried to protect her children instead of saving her own life, can’t seem to understand her husband’s reaction. How could he be so selfish, how could he just leave them there when he – a man – should be the one to take care of them, to protect them? How could he be so weak, so cowardly?
After the incident Ebba teases him about him running away in front of another couple (not even remotely innocently, but with a fair share of resentment towards his action), but things get even more complicated when Tomas denies that any of this actually happened. This starts Ebba’s passive-aggressive battle towards her husband, since she’s determined to get him to admit the truth, which puts their marriage in a major crisis.
But what Ebba (and most of the film’s audience, I believe) can’t seem to comprehend is that it wasn’t Tomas’ (however wrong) instinct, cowardice, selfishness or lack of manhood that turned their idyllic vacation into a hellish nightmare. It were the socially constructed gender roles that are so deeply implemented into our subconscious that we think of them as part of our human nature. And while Ebba embraced her social role as a mother who sacrifices herself for her children, for her family’s safety, Tomas fails to stand up to the role that’s expected from him. As a man of the family, living in a Western, patriarchal society, he should be taking care of his family, he should be brave and protective. So far he excelled in this role, because all he ever needed to do up to this point, was take care of the family financially. But now an instinctive action that happened before he could even think about what’s the right or wrong thing to do, has made him act in an exact opposite way that is expected of a man, a patriarch. His action made him look weak – what he did was the biggest embarrassment that could happen to him, because he failed not only as a husband or a father, but as a man. He may not show it at first (and this is what drives Ebba so crazy), but he couldn’t be more ashamed of himself. Anyhow, admitting to his action would mean admitting to his inadequacy. And Ebba, who tries to turn herself into the ultimate victim, can’t see that he’s no less of a victim in this situation as her – how we actually all are, because we all need to act a certain way, depending on our gender, to be accepted into the society. There is this one scene that may seem a little off and unrelated to the events at first, when Tomas gets locked out of their hotel room and goes searching for his family. At one point he finds himself in a club, in the middle of what seems to be a crazy tourist (or perhaps even a bachelor’s) party, full of drunk alpha-males – and he couldn’t seem more out of place. A few days before he would fit right in – but now he suddenly seems completely lost and confused in their company, as if he’s not man enough anymore to be in the same room with those drunken brutes that are weirdly perceived as “real men” in our society.
Ebba doesn’t stop until he finally breaks down; but his break is quite more literal than she anticipated. With admitting the most shameful act he ever did the wall he put up around him for all this time finally breaks down and what’s left of him is a grown man crying like a baby in a hotel hallway.
Ruben Östlund is one of the few male feminist film writers/directors – and not only that, he acknowledges that feminism applies to both genders, not only to women. When it comes to showing our feelings and emotions or to being compassionate towards one another, men are actually the ones who are not (or rather cannot afford to be, without being called “soft” or accused of being gay) equal to women. Human nature has been separated into two realms from the Ancient Greeks forward, with men dominating the realm of reason and women the realm of nature (which includes human emotions) – and things haven’t changed much since then. With this modern masterpiece Östlund tries to reverse the gender roles, the usual family dynamic. He makes us uncomfortable and frustrated in the process but this is just what he intended: to show us how we, too, will judge a man who abandons his family in a moment of crisis, who later denies his actions and then breaks down crying, because we are so used of seeing a man as a hero who will risk his life not only for his family, but (at least in the movies) for the whole humanity.
I spent a lot of time trying to find sociological studies that I could use to motivate the actions that take place in the film. There were two studies in particular that were very important to me. One showed how much more likely divorces are after an airplane hijacking and points out how couples have a really hard time getting over how they behave in a crisis situation and how a man usually isn’t the hero he’s expected to be. And the other was about surviving maritime catastrophes. From the Titanic to Estonia, you could see that men of a certain age are the ones who survive. I thought that was very interesting when you compare it to film history, where the main character or hero is always a man. This is so commonly reproduced, but when it comes to reality and a crisis situation, the ones that die are women and children. When people say, “I wonder what you would have done,” I can say for certain that a man is more likely to run away than a woman.
This is a perfectly executed drama: the direction, that at times reminds us of Haneke’s style, will make you feel just as trapped as Tomas and Ebba are at some point trapped by their marriage, and the cold visual palette will only add to the uneasy feeling of an expanding distance between the spouses. And that music! I used to play Four Seasons when I was younger and I know the music by heart. But I will never think of Vivaldi’s Summer (ironically used in the middle of winter) the same way again – if playing it used to relax me after practising Bach’s concertos, this music will now forever be associated with the most brilliant, uncomfortable and frustrating family drama I have ever seen.
List of references:
Kelsey, Colleen. 2015. Ruben Östlund’s Force of Nature.
Lucca, Violet. 2014. Interview: Ruben Östlund.
Directed by: Ruben Östlund
Written by: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Kristofer Hivju
Running Time: 120 minutes