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Things Fall Apart for ‘Force Majeure’: Natural Disasters & the Dissolution of a “Perfect” Family

"We decided early on that there shouldn’t be any limitations to the cinematography, no ‘style’ or definite approach but rather that we try to investigate from within," says DP Fredrik Wenzel.

A seemingly perfect family—handsome businessman Tomas, his beautiful wife Ebba and their two blond children—is stressed to the breaking point in Force Majeure. On a skiing vacation in the French Alps, the family is dining al fresco when they’re caught in an avalanche—the force majeure of the title. Tomas’ instinctual response starts its own avalanche of emotions and events that threatens the bond that holds the family together.

Director Ruben Östlund says—only partially joking—that one of his two goals in making this movie is to raise the divorce rate. Behind the provocation is Östlund’s clear-headed take on the “nuclear family,” which he regards as a dysfunctional artifact of the early 20th century. “I think we have to look at our lifestyle and our gender expectations, and that lifestyle so connected to the wish to be married,” he says. “The nuclear family is a much more fragile construction than the extended, large family.”

Director Ruben Östlund says that his one of his goals in making Force Majeure was “to create the most spectacular avalanche scene in history.”

Winner of the Jury Prize in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, Force Majeure is a spot-on—and often funny—examination of gender roles and the fragile construct of the nuclear family. The film has been selected as a contender for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 87th Academy Awards.

In his films, Östlund has developed a style in which the camera is a means of “highlighting the triviality of even a dramatic moment.” He first explored that approach in a film that reconstructed a robbery he witnessed. “All my references for robberies were American action movies, and what I saw didn’t fit how I thought it would look,” he explains. “The robbers went to the wrong entrance, and when they started shooting, nobody ran away in panic but got closer to get a look. To capture that absurdity in a real-time shot without cuts is a good way to do it. As soon as you cut, you create a hierarchy between what’s important and what’s not. A single take brings a kind of humor, and that’s one aspect of my style.”

Östlund gravitated to cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel after he heard him interviewed on a radio program. “Fredrik was talking about his earliest artistic experience, when he was 12 and listening to Norwegian black metal music,” the director recalls. “He took his feelings for that kind of music so seriously that it made an impression on me. And then I saw The Burrowing, a film he made, and I liked his attitude.” They met and Östlund found that “it was easy to communicate with him almost immediately.”

he family: Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), Harry (Vincent Wettergren), Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli).

The deal was sealed on a weeklong location scout in the Dolomites, a mountain range in northeastern Italy. “We decided early on that there shouldn’t be any limitations to the cinematography, no ‘style’ or definite approach,” recalls Wenzel, “but rather that we try to investigate from within. So we sat and talked through the script, scene by scene, going through each scenario, and the form grew out of those conversations.”

“I knew shooting 30 to 50 takes of each setting is common for Ruben, and we’d do one or two settings a day,” Wenzel says. “It’s a slow tempo but lots of material, and I proposed the [ARRI] Alexa partly because of the economy of it. But also I knew we would have an extreme amount of highlights in the snow, and, in my experience, the Alexa can handle the transition from light to dark, and has organic qualities to it. And the Alexa works well with textures and skin tones.” Although about 85 percent of the movie was shot with the Alexa, the filmmakers used a RED EPIC for a few scenes that were shot on skis.

For lenses, Wenzel chose Vantage Film’s Hawk Anamorphics. “I know many cinematographers claim it’s not worth the hassle to go with anamorphics, but there is a certain closeness to the human eye in the way it bends in the corner,” he says. “I was interested in the sensation of greatness, bigness. That’s a cliché with anamorphics because you usually use it for the landscapes, but for me it was more about the characters, even in an interior room. It’s hard to describe, but to me it is so obvious what it does with feeling.”

Cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel took this photo of the camera rig that a former world champion mogul skier wore to film the family skiing down the mountain. It took three people to put the rig on him.

Östlund was “extremely sensitive to anything that distorts the image,” Wenzel agrees, adding, “Yes, I was concerned about artifacts, especially with the bending of vertical lines. Ruben wants to shoot on a 50mm lens; sometimes we had to work to place the camera’s height in relationship to the vertical lines to minimize the artifacts.” Wenzel reports that he “mainly used an 85mm and 55mm, with occasional use of a 300mm spherical lens for some zoom shots.”

Force Majeure had a 60-day shooting schedule with the full crew, then two weeks for additional photography and pick-ups. The movie’s plot pivots on an avalanche that threatens the diners at an outdoor restaurant; that and a couple of other scenes were shot on a set in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city. All the scenes in the resort hotel were shot at a real Swedish ski resort, Copperhill Mountain Lodge, in the village of Åre.

The exterior ski scenes were shot in the French Alps at Les Arcs, and the end scene of the bus ride was shot in northern Italy’s South Tyrol region.

“All the exterior locations were quite challenging,” says Östlund. “To shoot on a mountain exposed to the weather with small kids wasn’t easy.” It wasn’t made easier by the fact that Östlund wanted to shoot the skiers in a white-out blizzard, as well as in heavy fog in a scene in which the family loses track of Ebba, the mother.

Östlund says that his second goal in making Force Majeure was “to create the most spectacular avalanche scene in history. We put a lot of work into that scene.”

“We had to build the whole restaurant in a studio and light it like it was a sunny day in the Alps,” says Wenzel, who credits his gaffer, Tobias Henriksson. “In the U.S., you’re so used to building these huge sets, but we don’t ordinarily have the resources to do so. I think we had 120,000 watts burning, quite a lot of fixtures, including four or five 18Ks, a couple of 12Ks and a couple of 6Ks.”

Director Ruben Östlund

Most of the scene was done in-camera, using snow cannons, wind machines and scaffolding connected to hydraulic motors to shake the set. “We did a take and then it took 40 minutes to reset and we’d do it again,” says Wenzel. “It was seven days of pre-lighting and a three-day shoot, so we spent a lot of time on it.”

Wenzel notes that shooting the avalanche wasn’t the most complicated part of Force Majeure, however. The most challenging time, he says, is “when you start a film but before you find that defining moment when the film really takes off. We started out shooting the exteriors, but the more subtle acting takes place mainly indoors. For both of us, that defining moment came when we shot the dinner scene. In that moment, it all came together and we knew, wow, this is the film. From then on, maintaining that level became the challenge.”