Colossal would be an apt word to define Ruben Östlund’s cinema. Whether facing ominous mountain-scapes or lost in overbearing architectural structures, Östlund’s characters always appear to be facing something fantastical, horrifying or otherwise a greater force beyond their comprehension. Marvellously, however, Östlund pulls in the reins to reveal relatively “normal” filmic realities, where nothing too exaggerated or out of place occurs. Force Majeure opens with grand establishing shots of sharp-edged French alps set to Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, followed by a boy peeing in the grand waterfall of the hotel bathroom. This montage series is typical Östlund: punchy, ironic and progressively building up an ominous tone to a pristine family skiing holiday. In The Square, the life of a contemporary gallery owner, Christian, is depicted with equal uncomfortable grandness. At the film’s inception in the confronting empty white space of his gallery, Christian is grilled by a maddeningly awkward interviewer on the meaning of his new hyped-up exhibit “The Square.” This installation intends to scrutinise and strip away the social conventions according to which people behave responsibly. This relates to the way Östlund addresses morality and social behaviour in both films, criticising the complacency of the middle-class by proceeding to turn his characters’ lives on their heads and hold them at knife’s edge.
Two of these protagonists are male and assume hierarchical middle-class roles: the successful (yet somewhat awkward), model-faced Christian (The Square); and Thomas, the head of the household family matched perfectly even to their clothing (Force Majeure). Östlund further proceeds to trash their complacent bourgeois worlds. In Force Majeure, the key turning-point occurs 10 minutes into a relatively content skiing holiday, as the family is struck by the blasts of a fake avalanche explosion. The moment they realise that the enormous blast of snow will wash over them, Thomas — in a state of shock — abruptly picks up his phone and flees, abandoning his wife and children. As the scene clears and Thomas refuses to admit to his actions, his wife Ebba becomes frustrated and angry to the detriment of their blissful family dynamic. In The Square, Christian gets robbed outside his art gallery. Although a relatively small occurrence for a gallery owner, he goes on a grand quest to take revenge on his perpetrator. Tracing his belongings on a “Find My Phone” app to a block of apartments, he sends threatening letters into every mailbox. The morals behind his own exhibit shadow his daily life as his own behaviour is put under scrutiny. Both of the character portrayals are surprisingly intimate, coming to terms with the reality that neither of them can be the person they want to be or are expected to be. This results in Christian being attacked by everyone and Thomas literally cast out of the family into the hotel corridor and breaking into a pathetic meltdown.
The beauty of Östlund’s films is that the reality he depicts is quite normal yet subtly threatening, as characters have absolutely no control. Against the craggy mountainous face, the canon-fire of controlled avalanches and impending storms, there is a sense in Force Majeure that the lives of the characters are always precarious — as if a “bigger force” is at play. Christian is also presented as a victim after a series of events take place to his own detriment. After releasing an “edgy” yet wildly inappropriate promotion video for his installation, he is brutally hashed by the press. One of the flat’s inhabitants, an angry boy banned from his play station after being wrongfully blamed for planting Christian’s letter as a prank, hunts him down to request an apology. Christian frustratingly refuses, claiming that it wasn’t his fault, as he had to make this decision in the first place. So, what Östlund really wants to talk about — from one bizarre display to the next — is people’s lack of altruism and oblivion to the problems of others: an inability, in other words, to think outside their own “box.” By aggressively exposing his characters, Östlund squeezes out what hitherto remained suppressed. Thomas screams into the hills as the expectations of his masculinity have been trumped. Christian sends a long text message to the boy (eventually beyond his comprehension), mostly to justify his behaviour given his social standing in life. He never receives a response and, upon realising the boy has moved out of the block of apartments, never will.
Östlund takes great joy in immersing his films with what he calls “horrifying, awkward moments,” and with the end goal of putting human behaviour to the test. He brings to the fore perfect situations and socially deconstructs them into dystopian nightmares, placing in both of his films the primacy of survival over altruism. In Force Majeure, Ebba conceives of the necessity that Thomas — as a husband and father — should have instinctually put the needs of his family over his own (in a moment of crisis). This is pushed even to the next level by a performance piece in The Square: a man with ape mannerisms walks into the gallery’s decadent hall where the guests are having dinner. What initially starts as a performance soon gets out of hand and involves chasing a prominent artist out of the hall and violating the crowd. The enclosed space that situates predator and prey is a perfect display of the animal hunting instinct — that if one displays fear or tries to run, the animal will sense it and hunt the prey down. Therefore, the only way to be safe is to remain still, and blend into the herd — which is what happens when the ape begins harassing a girl and no one responds. As Östlund himself describes, “Being a prey is something involuntary. We put quite some guilt in the individual when it comes to situations like this… but the reason that we end up in this situation is that we are herd animals, and we don’t know how to react.”
Painfully ironic, aggressive and humorously on point, Östlund’s films are timely cinematic pieces that put their characters’ moral compasses at stake.
Ellie Steiner (@gorodeckiellie) is a film journalist with a masters in film philosophy, writing for the publications Vague Visages and Unsung Films.