It was only recently that I took notice of ‘Force Majeure’ (2014), a movie that took the very popular topic of masculinities, femininities, gender roles and relationships to a controversial level, at least for a number of people and magazines. Numerous articles tried to dissect the movie, the arguments and motives, as well as what was actually going on with the male protagonist, Tomas. (For example Die Zeit, https://www.zeit.de/kultur/film/2014-11/hoehere-gewalt-film-ruben-oestlund)
‘Force Majeure’ depicts the decaying relationship of Tomas and Ebba after their imaginations of masculinity were drastically shattered. The whole movie is therefore a statement on stereotypes and expectations of especially men that became deadlocked a long time ago, and how they structure human relationships. In his book ‘Studying Men and Masculinities’ David Buchbinder (2012) provided a handy set of tools to analyze and explain this process. Not only can we observe different imaginations and concepts of masculinities in ‘Force Majeure’, but are also confronted with the conferring of ideals and the patrolling function against deviations from those ideals.
When Hegemonic Man Fails
The married couple Tomas and Ebba spend their ski holidays in the French Alps together with their two kids Vera and Harry. On day 1 we encounter a slightly stressed out father who struggles to take care of the kids. His bad mood is apparent to his wife who swiftly points out that he might just be hungry, which Tomas reacts to in a rather snappish way. This only preludes day 2, on which the catalyst of the whole movie comes happens: While having lunch on the terrace of a restaurant with quite a stunning view over the French Alps, a controlled avalanche is set loose. Ebba and the kids quickly get frightened by the loud noise and the oncoming masses of snow and dust, as the avalanche moves closer to the terrace of the restaurant. Tomas tries to calm his family by telling them how ‘They know what they are doing’, therefore legitimizing himself with the expertize of unknown others. He also keeps pointing out the sheer force that’s being set free by that avalanche, just moments before it gets really close and envelops the whole terrace in whiteness. It just then happens that Tomas flees, picking up his phone and leaving his family behind. Almost scared out his ski-shoes, his instincts took over and he runs.
After the dust settles, a laughing and joking Tomas returns, once again claiming ‘They know what they are doing’ and therefore trying to establish his own authority of the situation. Tensions between Tomas and Ebba rise. The first confrontation after the incident happens back at the hotel. Tomas notices Ebba’s bad mood, but seems oblivious about the reason. All the while, the hotel’s janitor watches the two in a mix of confusion and astonishment. The problem remains unaddressed, for now, and the kids gradually retreat in growing fear of their parent’s divorce.
At this point it has become clear why Ebba is upset with Tomas. He failed to fulfil a central masculine imagination: the protector of the family. This ideal is by far not exclusive to hegemonic masculinities, it is also an essential part of hegemonic femininities. Ebba stayed with the 2 kids when the avalanche reached the restaurant, even shielding them before the assumed deadly snow masses. Tomas however did fail at this task. In that crucial moment, he only saved himself. As a viewer, it is not hard to understand Ebba’s reaction and emotions. But it is worth to look a little bit deeper into where imaginations of masculinity origin from and how they function. Throughout most of the movie, Tomas and his surroundings, including his kids and Ebba, confer on him the role of the patriarch, leader and superior, dominant, hegemonic figure of authority. When the avalanche is set loose, Ebba turns to Tomas to ask ‘Is that an avalanche’? When the family starts a drone from their hotel room, Harry exclaims that only his father is allowed to pilot the flying machine. Again and again, Tomas is imagined, reproduced and constructed as the authority figure, instead of for example a relationship of shared authority with Ebba.
This problem becomes clearly evident at dinner on day 2. Tomas and Ebba meet at a restaurant with another couple (pretty much the anti-thesis to Tomas and Ebba). Symbolically the scene starts with Tomas tasting the wine, implying the required skill, responsibility and authority. Afterwards, Tomas starts telling about their day and the event with the avalanche. Ebba mocks the way Tomas pronounces the word ‘avalanche’which leads to more tensions. Eventually, Tomas leaves out the part of fleeing and leaving the family behind. Ebba plays along and states how it frightened her: ‘It was horrifying’. Tomas remarks that she indeed ‘got a bit afraid, but it was controlled and they know what they’re doing…’, which finally leads to Ebba exposing Tomas in public. Tomas goes into denial, claiming not to remember it happening this way, and the two of them get into their first real argument. Ebba’s reaction to the situation is laughing in disbelief, which Tomas counters by questioning her rationality due to the influence of shock and wine.
The problem regarding masculinities is twofold here. Tomas failed the hegemonic masculinity at hand in two ways:
1. He failed as the protector of the family
2. He failed in confronting his own fear of the avalanche. And by confronting him with that, Ebba subconsciously exercises the patrolling-function, disciplining and punishing the deviant masculinity by calling him out in public and openly stating her disappointment and frustration with his behaviour.
Later, we see another confrontation outside their hotel room. Ebba is still confused why Tomas keeps twisting the story of what happened. Tomas on the other hand speaks of two different perceptions and that Ebba’s way of seeing things is ‘strange’. Again at this point, it is up to Tomas to bring meaning and sense to the situation, it is up to him to act as authority figure and interpret the whole. But still, Ebba demands a matching opinion on the events between the two of them, on which they agree: avalanche – fear – everything went well.
Another example for the apparent requirement for Tomas being the authority figure happens when the couple notices an onlooker during one discussion outside their hotel room. The janitor, smoking a cigarette, once again observes the curious situation, but Ebba prompts Tomas to tell the janitor to leave, but ends up doing so herself, dragging her husband along, as she rises to become the authority figure of the moment. Tomas is once more unable to fulfil the required role.
The same evening, Mats and his girlfriend arrive. They are depicted as loving, caring and playful.
On the third day, the gender troubles become more and more evident, when Ebba decides to go skiing all on her own. Tomas tries to supply her with his credit card, but she turns him town pointing out that she has her own, appearing to slowly retreat from the family, which grows more and more stricken by the fear of a looming divorce. Still, Ebba portrays the conservative-traditional model of family and women, standing in a stark contrast to her liberal, promiscuous friend she meets later during the day. Those gender struggles experience a drastic outbreak at dinner with Mats and his girlfriend, when Ebba and Tomas get into another confrontation about the events. Mats, trying to mediate between the couple, brings forth the argument of instincts, survival and talks about the myths of old heroes, very accurately pointing at the actual issue at hand, the very difference between myth of masculinities and the practice of being a man. But the problem remains: Tomas is still not able to face the fact that he fled and left his family behind. The argument of instincts turns against Tomas, when Ebba points out that her instincts demanded her to stay and protect her kids. After watching the video tape of the event, Tomas’ flight cannot be denied any longer, so Mats tries to reinterpret it, claiming that he fled to later return and save his family.
In the aftermath of the evening, the conflict is also transferred to Mats and Fanny, who get into an argument about each other’s masculinity/femininity. Fanny doesn’t view Mats as a ‘protector of the family’, rather she senses a lot of similarities to Tomas. Mats masculinity therefore experiences a delicate fracture, which he tries to counter later during the night with the allegation that Fanny wasn’t female enough to have kids of her own. Both confer imaginations of gender onto the other during this conflict, which eventually leads to unstable circumstances for everyone involved. This can also be observed when Mats and Tomas go for a skiing trip alone. The ‘homosocial relationship’ is clearly in disarray due to their fractured and insecure masculinities. Back in the hotel with his family, Tomas experiences a mental breakdown and starts crying – which Ebba at first reacts to with the accusation of simulation – just before exclaiming the ultimate problem: He can’t live with himself, a victim of his instincts, any longer. Unable to fulfil the demands associated to the imagination of the hegemonic man, the myth of the masculinity conferred onto him, he breaks down, leaving nothing but a shattered masculinity.
So how to heal such a severe fracture? Easy solution: A heroic deed, just like the old heroes in the myths performed. On their last day of skiing, on a slope enveloped in deep fog, Ebba seemingly gets hurt and Tomas successfully manages to save her, presenting us with the perfect happy ending of restoration. But fortunately, this is not the final scene of ‘Force Majeure’. The ending comes with yet another insecure man: a bus driver, who struggles with the narrow mountain roads of the French Alps. This quickly leads to a scared Ebba demanding the bus to be stopped and fleeing the vehicle, leaving everyone, including Tomas and her kids behind. After a short while, almost everyone (with one exception) leaves the bus and thanks Ebba for her courage to vacate the bus in the face of looming danger. In the final moments we see a group of people walking down an alpine road, Tomas ‘leading the pack’ and in the process igniting a cigarette.
Patriarchy – Restore // Demolish
The smoking of a cigarette is a profound symbol in all of culture, especially when it comes to men. The Marlboro Cowboy is one of the most iconic PR inventions of the 20th century. Smoking went from being cool and masculine (while it can also be performed in a ‘feminine way’) to unhealthy and irresponsible. Reclaiming rights for smoking is part of several movements that try to restore traditional conservative masculinities. Therefore, the last scene can be interpreted as a restoration of Tomas to an even more traditional masculinity. After failing to fulfil the imagination of the present hegemonic masculinity, and breaking down mentally in the process, he ‘repairs’ himself and his shattered masculinity by performing an act of rescue and connecting himself to the old myths Mats and him talked about earlier. Ultimately, Ebba proves that some ‘instincts’ overrule others: By fleeing the bus, she also left her family behind, basically acting very similarly to Tomas when the avalanche incident happened. The role of the ‘protector of the family’ is not only reversed, but in the process even more twisted and construed.
Myth versus instincts, hegemonic masculinities and femininities versus social gender practice fuel a clash over power and dominance in an increasingly troubled relationship between a man and a woman, leaving two children as casualties of a gender war. So is the problem and the cause the concept of gender itself or the existence of man and woman? Do we need to further deconstruct, almost destroy any notion of gender and steer towards a gender neutral society? I leave this with a big question mark, for the problems do not essentially lie in the core concept of a certain social and cultural category, but in the correlating power relationships. Myths and established imaginations of gender act as a resource for the construction of contemporary masculinities and identity, potentially as well as negative. Yet, hegemonic masculinities present us with a normative approach of gender that in practice leads to mental and physical breakdowns due to the increasing social pressure. Tomas is the prime example: He does not want to be a ‘hegemonic man’, he does not want to adhere to a hegemonic masculinity, but he is required to do so by almost everyone around him, Ebba, Mats, even the janitor. They effectively become collaborators to patriarchy. And in the midst of those gender troubles, struggles for power and new as well as old concepts of masculinity, the conflict reaches down to the smallest detail, including fights over the eternally contested toilet lid. In the end, not the notion of gender needs to be abolished, but the patriarchal hierarchy and power, manifested in fixed imaginations of how man as well as woman need to be and enforced by classic Foucauldian mechanisms of discipline and punish (conferring and patrolling) through numerous actors in society, have to be effectively demolished through freedom of choice and diversity.
Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund, Beofilm, 2014.
David Buchbinder, Studying Men and Masculinities, London/New York: Routledge, 2012.
Featured image under CC 3.0, The Broken Menhir of Er Grah in Locmariaquer, Brittany, Bjørn som tegner (edit by Myrabella), link.