FORCE MAJEURE, the Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s fourth feature, was along with Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida one of 2014’s handful of breakout foreign art-house successes. They are both movies whose qualities are on the surface self-evident, and Östlund’s puts its themes and roiling inner turmoil before a viewer with crystalline clarity. Force Majeure begins with a family on a ski holiday posing as a perfect unit for a photographer, and proceeds to reveal them as anything but, as their experience of a controlled physical avalanche induces an uncontrolled emotional one.
Force Majeure is a concise, relatively accessible arrangement of the same component themes which Östlund has been reworking for years now, a fact attested to by Film Society of Lincoln Center’s overview of his brief filmography. In his late teens and early twenties, Östlund distinguished himself with skiing videos, two of which, Free Radicals (1997) and Free Radicals 2 (1998), will play FSLC. Setting footage of headlong, sheer downhill dives to an adrenaline-pumping punk sound track, the Free Radicals tapes make foolhardy, death-defying heroes of his subjects, and heroism—or, more often, its failure to appear in high-pressure situations—will be the topic that Östlund returns to time and again.
A stint at the University of Gothenburg seems to have tamped down the joyousness evident in his ski videos, and Östlund emerged from school with The Guitar Mongoloid (2004), a collection of vignettes set on the grotty fringes of the city featuring nonprofessional performers held in framings that are unobtrusive to the point of seeming surreptitious. Vandalism and other antisocial behavior runs through the film, contextualized by scenes of boys egging one another on, though the real instigator is offscreen—the camera. Peer pressure is also the subject of Östlund’s intriguingly titled 2005 short Autobiographical Scene Number 6882, which enacts a double-dog-dare scenario playing on the old “If everyone else jumped off a bridge…” saying. By 2008’s sophomore effort, Involuntary, Östlund’s clinical behaviorist style is fully formed. The film is a succession of discreet fishbowl compositions in which group dynamics are observable in several disparate, intercut scenarios, connected only thematically: the misadventures of two sexually precocious tween girlfriends; a family gathering at which the patriarch, injured by a firework, refuses medical attention; a new teacher cold-shouldered by colleagues after standing up for a disruptive student.
The proximity between Östlund’s “detached” approach and surveillance camera mise-en-scène is made clear in his Golden Bear–winning 2009 short Incident by a Bank. It reenacts a failed bank robbery which occurred in Stockholm in 2006, filmed in a single ten-minute shot, panning and scanning from a fixed position above street level, observing the reactions of passersby and participants. It’s the immediate precedent for the opening shot of Play (2011), which looks out over the courtyard of a Gothenburg mall, where five black adolescents are preparing to ply a cell phone away from some younger white boys. It’s a scam that they’ve evidently practiced many times before, drawing on good cop/bad cop head games, anxiety about class and race, and old-fashioned physical intimidation.
As in Force Majeure, which depicts the craven loss and ceremonial recovery of manhood, Play is concerned with the process of constructing and maintaining roles. The additional element of race in this earlier film makes it an altogether chewier piece of work, Östlund’s most interesting to date, depicting his countrymen as hidebound by manners and liberal conscientiousness, reserved to the point of being incapacitated by “Don’t get involved” skittishness. Ever-so-slightly softening the austerity of Play, the popular success of Force Majeure makes it an undeniable benchmark for Östlund, though I wonder where he can go next—a behaviorist whose “studies” are foregone conclusions can only have so many breakthroughs.