While not the best film I’ve seen at the cinema recently, Ruben Östlund’s Turist – better known by its international release name Force Majeure – is certainly close to being so. This is a well-made, coolly-distant familial drama, the story detailing the gradual disintegration of a middle class couple’s marriage at an Alpine ski resort, and the acting by leads Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli impressed me. Despite the premise, it is not a completely downbeat affair: the director is known for his love of awkward conversations and embarrassing situations, and extracts every last drop of humour from several long, uncomfortable scenes; he also starts and ends his film with two quite spectacular set pieces that are more thrilling, thanks to the realistic way in which they are depicted, than anything I’ve seen in recent big budget CGI spectacles.
Kuhnke and Kongsli play Tomas and Ebba, who we first see with their children Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren) as they pose for official tourist pictures on the first day of their holiday. Notably, Tomas is told to stand closer to his wife as the unseen photographer manipulates the family through a series of poses, but otherwise there are few hints of any cracks in their marriage at this early stage. In the hotel bedroom, however, there are minor grumbles about the unstoppable intrusion of Tomas’s iPhone, an early indication of the value he places on the device, while the kids are often uncommunicative when ensnared by the family tablet; their holiday begins well, though, and such scenes will be familiar to many modern families.
Threats of avalanches are often present in the French Alps, and at this resort controlled explosions are used on the mountains to trigger smaller, manageable snowslides. Östlund peppers his soundtrack with these regular, loud bangs – Turist sounds like a war film, at times – and the holidaymakers seem to be used to them, but during lunch on a restaurant terrace on the family’s second day disaster almost strikes. It appears that one of the explosions has caused an avalanche that is out of control. As it heads straight for the diners panicking people scatter, while Tomas grabs his phone and gloves and makes a run for it, leaving Ebba with the two petrified children; however the snow stops short of the restaurant and they are merely engulfed for a minute in a cloud of smoke. When blue skies and order rapidly reappear the father must return, shamefully and awkwardly, to his family. Even their meals are still sitting on the table. It’s a fantastic scene, the director opting for one continuous four-minute shot of the actors and using real footage of an avalanche from Canada in the background, adding in the digital snowstorm to complete the composite afterwards.
What follows is a day-by-day account of the rest of the holiday. Östlund’s earlier films feature characters who try to operate normally while in a state of denial, and it’s no different here as Ebba’s discontentment with Tomas grows in the face of her husband’s refusal to take responsibility and admit what actually happened. There’s a delightfully awkward restaurant conversation between the couple and another pair of newly-acquainted guests, where stumbling English is used as a common language before the two Swedes end up bickering in their native tongue, while Ebba and Tomas regularly leave their room to confront each other in the corridor outside, unseen by their children but watched amusingly by a perplexed hotel worker.
The uncomfortable conversations and accusations continue as the week passes. Two more characters are introduced: the bearded, divorced Mats (Kristofer Hivju, a minor actor on Game Of Thrones) is seemingly a friend of Tomas’s from ski seasons past who is holidaying with his new young girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius), and they are forced to give their opinions on the cowardice with all parties present. At one point Mats desperately tries to defend Tomas but he is clearly clutching at straws, while the ‘what would you do in the same situation?’ question turns into another argument that suggests these newcomers are perhaps not well-suited as a couple themselves (Östlund mentioned on a recent Barbican podcast that his film has caused similar debates between couples who have watched it). The most cringe-inducing moment of all sees Ebba forcing everyone to watch Tomas’s smartphone footage of the avalanche, thereby confirming not only his cowardice but also his subsequent denial and lies. Viewing this feels uncomfortable: we can be sympathetic to Ebba’s shock and understanding of her surprise at her husband’s actions, but it is simultaneously difficult to judge Tomas due to the extremity of the unusual situation. Is it just an unfortunate lapse in the heat of the moment? Or is it the sign of something else, previously hidden from Ebba? Would you react differently? How do you know how you would react? Is Ebba right to drop the public facade and accuse Tomas in front of other people?
Tomas reacts by trying to reclaim his lost masculinity, and it’s as heartbreaking as it is hilarious: he is forced by Mats to emit a barbaric yawp at the top of a mountain, is humiliated by a drunk woman in an amusing case of mistaken identity, and there’s even a weird, dreamlike sequence in which he is swallowed up by a gang of boozed-up blokes, redolent of a similar female-oriented scene in Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin. However the problems between Ebba and Tomas seems to be increasing, the gap between them wider and wider, and the eventual emotional fallout is itself like an unstoppable avalanche. The worldwide title of the film, of course, has a triple meaning: force majeure means ‘chance occurrence’ or ‘unavoidable event’, which refers to both the avalanche and the subsequent marital problems, while it is also a legal term that implies a contract – that of a marriage, perhaps – can be broken in the event of an unforseen happening.
Originally a maker of snowboarding-related videos, Östlund uses the natural wonders – giant peaks, huge snowfalls, sudden whiteouts – to create a landscape that is both awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time, while dangers continue to reveal themselves up to the end of the film, long after Tomas has endured a breakdown. All the while resort machinery (ski-lifts and cable cars, mainly) continue to whirr around, the fear that a cable car is going to break loose and drop reflective of the state of the couple’s union. The director’s intention was to ‘highlight the absurdity of the ski resort’ and he does so by using lingering shots that detail the attendant day-glo clothes, giant ski boots, slowly-moving travelators and cool, minimalist decor. Ski resorts are strange places.
The events at the end of the film are particularly clever, offering two chances of redemption for Tomas and even allowing Mats to show Fanni that he is the man he claims to be (though you could argue his actions stem from a need to prove himself that Tomas simply doesn’t have). The final scene, showing the main characters as they walk down a mountain road, is oddly captivating, their positions and facial expressions perhaps revealing the future of their respective relationships, while Tomas’s actions reveal a newly-discovered honesty. It is perhaps a little too long, but that doesn’t matter so much when a story is this engrossing, and it’s unsurprising that Östlund has been compared to Michael Haneke: this film has that same sense of cool detachment often found in the Austrian’s work, while it is regularly just as uncomfortable and shocking.
Directed by: Ruben Östlund.
Written by: Ruben Östlund.
Starring: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius
Cinematography: Fredrik Wenzel.
Editing: Jacob Secher Schulsinger.
Music: Ola Fløttum.
Running Time: 119 minutes.