Force Majeure (Turist) Ruben Ostlund (Swe; 2014) Johannes Kuhnke; Clara Wettergren
Viewed: Tyneside Cinema; 30 April 2015; Ticket £8.50
Postcard from IKEA
Sweden used to be cinematically defined by the films of Ingmar Bergman. Dark nights, vigils of God abandoned individuals, the impossibility of communication, often set against untamed moody seas. This notion of Sweedishness complemented perhaps by Volvo cars has, as Ostlund realises, long ceased to have any contemporary resonance. Today Sweden has IKEA with its big idea of tasteful design endlessly replicated in a thousand settings. IKEA’S walk through spaces are now a force in themselves conditioning the sensibilities of the Middle Class experience.
In Force Majeure (FM) the proposition of design forces shaping consciousness, is an idea that is filmically put to the test. A sort of thought experiment if you like. Necessary because IKEA has conquered the world.
The active dynamic of FM is not so much the characters (Ebba and Tomas) or the plot but the backgrounds against which they are depicted. The film comprises series of interiors and mini settings that might have come from any IKEA store on any continent. It is these background ‘installations’ that condition the reactions of the actors to the script’s provocation: Tomas’ abandonment of his family at a moment of danger and his refusal to admit to his behaviour.
Ostlund’s camera is his main forensic device, presenting Tomas’ behaviour against the smooth surfaces of the resort hotel. The camera suggesting in the way it frames the action that the ethos of modern IKEA design. and contemporary shifts in the values underlying Western personal relationships, are wired into the same circuitry.
Like Ozu, Ostlund uses his camera to frame areas. He employs the still frame as his main type of camera shot, within which and through which we see the movement image. However whereas Ozu’s ‘ still frame’ captures screens and bamboo woven walls, the closed- off sight lines that characterise Japanese culture, Ostlund’s still frames capture the open plan nature of IKEA life. The sight lines in IKEAland are wide; an environment where everything is seen. Like Ozu’s closed off spaces, the open spaces which are the focus of Ostlund’s camera weave their own mesh of influence over the actors. The openness of these IKEA zones places everyone in full view of everyone else, everyone is on show, adults and children alike. The hotel with its long corridors open to gaze, the hotel suite with its bed area, with its eating area, its bathroom area all these spaces exert a sort of imperative cultural gravity towards conformity and consensus in relations and in behaviour. The uniform nature of design conditioning a uniformity in response by the actors, the open spaces conditioning a fear of oppositions and a gravitational pull towards consensus
Particularly interesting in FM are the scenes set in the ‘his and hers’ en suite bathroom. Filmed in the vast mirror against a dark jade background Ebba and Tomas brush their teeth in their individual basins with their individual electric toothbrushes. Lars von Trier might have shown the couple fucking, but the toothbrush shots say more about their relationship then sex. They have left the domain of the pure physical body and now occupy a zone characterised by shared automated gestures. They perform a mechanical soulless duet that celebrates their IKEA identity which has replaced the old opposition of raw sex.
If IKEA conquers the world it does so in the sense that it becomes a conscious type of choice for a certain class or strata of people who seek to define their lives not through oppositions but through something we might call consensus. IKEA’s design and graphic constructions represent a decontextualisation of history.
IKEA design (ditto Apple design) bypasses history social cultural ethnic and race divisions, all the messy stuff, with something that appears to come out of a hat from nowhere. Pure techno products unreferencing of anything but themselves. IKEA artefacts, like Apple products blue jeans and T shirts are the products for those who embrace a 'silicone identity', living out careers ( not lives) detached from the old analogue oppositions. The relationship between products and constructed environments is locked into circuitry that reinforces a continuous loop of mutual product /identity affirmation. And the reward for staying in the Ikea /Apple consumer loop is to become a tourist. Decontextualised, de-gendered the person/consumer is free to live like a tourist. Free from history and culture, free to roam the earth, guided and hooked up through the mobile phone in a constant stream of information.
And it is interesting to see that Ostlund’s own title for the film is: ‘Turist’ (Tourist). The title FM foisted on the film by its UK distributors points to what is ephemeral in the film, the phantom avalanche. Ostlund’s title Turist points to what is essential to the film. The intrapenetration of desire and design to create a strata of tourist people. A people living in one domain a consensual domain where space is abolished not just by acceleration, but by the rendering of all environments as consensually equivalent and similar. Environments are built so that oppositional realities are engineered out of them, so that they always comprise familiar non conflicting representations of reality.
And for the new tourist, nature herself must ideally be conformed to the same ethos that defines built structures. The forests and woods must look wild but have safe paths and sanctuary. The mountain sides which are the specious object of the tourists’ visit must look white and wild but conform to the moulding of the ski industry which lights them up, sanitises them, builds natural looking dwellings in the valleys and covers the slopes with mechanical contrivances for effortlessly lifting the tourists up. The IKEA impulse now transforms nature which becomes an extension of the en suite twin bathroom.
So the world reconfigures itself according to the tourist gaze which demands nothing less than benign detachment of their career from the actual.
In FM Ostlund points up the dangers of the new ethos A ethos based on self referencing de contextualisation of the world sets up a self reinforcing and amplifying circuit of consensus. But if oppositions arise this type of consensus culture may be critically unprepared and too inexperienced to meet this kind of problem.
Japan’s model prewar society based on partitions and compartmentalisation represented in Ozu’s filmic projections of a world of screens and woven bamboo, created a cultural dis-connected state of mind that made it possible for Japan to embrace the madness of brutal war and visious colonialisation.
Threatened by a phantom avalanche, Tomas abandons his family to save him own skin. And then denies it. Was his failure to admit to what he did, conditioned by the IKEA installations in which he lives? Is his inability to admit to his act of omission directly caused by the amplification consensus circuitry of this homogenous environment? The tourist defined by conventional gesture and consensus forgets the the reality of opposition Tomas could only recognise behaviour in himself that accorded with the IKEA consensual world in which he lives. And Ebba struggles with the same problem. She cannot initially cope with the discordance provoked by oppositions raised by Tomas. Slowly Ebba summons up the will to shift the IKEA furniture and challenge Tomas. But the process is difficult. The furniture is big and heavy and when she finally moves it, it falls on Tomas. He floods out, unable to handle oppositional stress. So Ebba replaces the furniture and the IKEA equilibrium is restored. The problem of opposition unresolved.
In the penultimate sequence Ebba and Tomas leave the ski resort as tourists. But in the final sequence something happens. Ebba frightened by the manoeuvres of the bus driver, demands to be let off the bus mid way down the mountain road. The fellow travellers, bar one, follow her off the bus. The final shot of the film is this group of de-bussed tourists, walking long ways down the road. They look like they have escaped from a Lars von Trier film like the Idiots. But they haven’t . Perhaps Ebba has learnt the wrong lessons from Tomas’ oppositional crisis, and is now fatally overreacting becoming an Idiot striding meaninglessly towards engagement with false oppositions.
The IKEA effect de-intensifies and mutes the experience of life. But it becomes a source of danger when situations arise that it can no longer contain. Wild energies.