Gender Dynamics on Screen: Force Majeure

Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (Turist originally in Swedish, 2014) is not just a sharp-eyed satire; it is also a disaster movie albeit one with a twist. Namely, that the disaster is not so much a natural catastrophe – the more or less controlled avalanche at the beginning only sets things in motion – but a social and psychological one. In the tradition of disaster movies, Force Majeure shows actions that are at first difficult to discern, like the preparation of ski lanes and explosions of controlled avalanches. Taken together with a camera work that includes horror film conventions, Force Majeure creates tension and conveys the sense of an approaching disaster.

By Theresa Rodewald

Force Majeure, like other of Östlund’s films, deals with expectations: expectations of how a happy family looks like, or how father and mother are supposed to act. Thus, it reflects on the representation of men and women, heroism and family values. Above all, Force Majeure depicts a woman who, having internalised these social expectations, experiences nonconformity as loss of identity and happiness. Instead of showing her struggle against, fight or break conventions, Force Majeure lets its female main character Ebba put her effort into conforming to what she believes are her innermost needs and desires. In this way, Force Majeure brings French philosopher Michel Foucault’s ideas on English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon to mind.

Expectations – in an overarching social sense but also in their smaller, personalised form – appear as one of Force Majeure’s main themes. This is evident at the beginning of the film when Ebba, Tomas and their two children have their pictures taken by a photographer at a French ski resort. He arranges them as the image of a happy family on holiday: the parents arm in arm and their children next to them, all smiling. When later, Ebba meets the free-spirited Charlotte, she is confused when learning that Charlotte is there without her partner and children. In her view, a family is supposed to go on holiday together.

One of Force Majeure’s most interesting aspects is the way it undermines traditional and conventional notions of male heroism. Tomas is less the hero and more a selfish and immature coward. His first impulse is to save himself instead of staying with his family, he cannot admit to or talk about his actions and later, when confronted with their visual evidence in the form of a video, he simply collapses. Finally, Tomas drops all pretence and while pseudo-crying only admits to being “a victim of his instincts”. He seems to lack the ability to see or reflect on social or (inter-)personal expectations, rather he only reacts to them. By involving their children, he finally pressures Ebba to restore family order by staging her rescue in a snowstorm. While it would be possible to frame this story with an emphasis on drama, Force Majeure focuses on satire – Tomas’ denial and his use of pseudo-psychology are a constant source of comedy while also heightening their destructive dimension. Instead of giving him the power of a villain, he appears childish and ridiculous.

Force Majeure’s framing of Ebba, however, is more compassionate. It is with this character that the film reflects on motherhood, as well internal and external pressure to perform and conform to its idealised image. When Tomas abandons Ebba and the children, he shatters not only her expectations of a husband as head and guardian of the family but also her self-image as mother and wife. His abandonment and subsequent denial leave her cornered and alone. When she decides to take her own time by spending a day skiing by herself, it becomes clear that her expectations towards herself also corner Ebba. In a conversation with Charlotte, she is not able to include the other woman’s more liberal views. When confronted with an alternate lifestyle, she clings to her views on family and motherhood – this is how tightly connected social expectations are to Ebba’s self-image. This is why, Ebba’s ‘me-time’ eventually results in feelings of guilt, as shown by her crying when she watches a family past by. Later, Ebba states: “My natural focus is on my kids”, thus showing that she identifies with an idea of motherhood as naturally nurturing.

In this way, Force Majeure calls to mind Foucault’s writings on Bentham’s 18th-century panopticon that is a prison which is built in such a way that from one central point in the middle, a prison guard can see into each of the cells. Thus, inmates can be under constant observance while never knowing when they are and are not watched. As described by Foucault, Bentham predicts that in due time, the threat of constant surveillance leads inmates to correct their behaviour unconsciously. They internalise its mechanisms and eventually surveil themselves. Foucault uses Bentham’s model to think about the historical development of a disciplinary society. He proposes that the modern state and its institutions operate similarly to the panopticon. In a way, social and state surveillance become gradually more internal until people surveil and normalise themselves.

Returning to Force Majeure, the film features some parallels to Foucault’s thoughts. The film is less about surveillance but shows the powerful effect of deeply ingrained social expectations on individuals. Ebba seems to feel unable to abandon the notion of a family as father, mother and children. Even when confronted with Tomas not performing the role of husband and guardian, she focuses on her children and decides to restore their ‘old’ family dynamic.

On a different note, it seems surprising that Force Majeure features these notions and expectations of family and motherhood in the first place. After all, it is a Swedish production. Sweden is generally considered to be one of the world’s forerunners concerning gender equality with laws encouraging both parents to stay at home with their newborn child. Yet, Force Majeure suggests that this does not necessarily change family dynamics – traditional notions of family and the ensuing ‘duties’ of mothers and fathers persists. In this way Force Majeure points to an interesting and concerning change in Swedish gender dynamics. As the research The Changing Face of Motherhood in Western Europe: Sweden (2012) suggests, traditional family values are currently resurfacing, especially once a couple gets children. Moreover, studies indicate the return of the housewife in Sweden. This trend is fuelled by the notion that staying at home entails having more time for children’s needs and thus being a ‘good’ mother. In a situation such as this, films like Force Majeure, or satire, in general, is all the more important. It shows aspects that one would rather not see, making them visible and watchable through humour.