‘Force Majeure’, the emotionally and visually stunning new Swedish film from director Ruben Ostlund, hinges on a temporarily terrifying moment. A family of four is eating lunch on ski resort terrace in the French Alps when a growing avalanche hurdles toward them. Amidst screaming and scattering, the father flees for survival, leaving his wife to protect their children hiding underneath the table. After the momentary blizzard evaporates, the film proceeds to navigate the morally foggy fallout of his cowardly decision.
Male heroics have continually thrived in the cinematic landscape. Studios, especially in this golden age of superhero pictures, consistently push testosterone-driven franchises. Ostlund has challenged this accepted schematic not by countering with a female warrior, but by stripping the man down and flushing him out. The film, nominated as the official Oscar entry from Sweden, looks to become an impactful outlier.
“Young people love it. But there are some men who are getting very disturbed by it,” said Johannes Kuhnke, the Swedish actor playing that guilty father and husband, Tomas. “Weakness is very provoking for people.”
Kuhnke, 42, sits in a Manhattan office conference room but has trouble staying seated. Part of this is inherent. He studied theater at Gothenberg and the Malmo Theater Academy, allowing him roles in The Three Musketeers, Cabaret, and the title role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He shows me a picture of his painted face as Hedwig and laments that he won’t get to take up creator John Cameron Mitchell’s offer to see it on Broadway. He’s experiencing the throes of being in a major feature press tour for the first time.
“This has been crazy after our premiere [in Cannes],” said Kuhnke, who studied acting at New York University’s Stone Street studios. “We go to different countries, all these festivals, and doing all this press. We’re going to L.A. tomorrow.”
Aside from his onscreen work in television (Real Humans), this was Kuhnke’s first feature film. Considering his background singing and expressing outwardly on stage, this role challenged him in a variety of ways, primarily acting through subtleties. In the film, after the nonfatal incident, Tomas still has three days to spend skiing with his family. Each day, and each limited conversation, is threatened with sharp glances and unexpressed emotions. Tomas denies his actions. He represses any exploration of his shame.
“When I started to act I wanted to… be the higher you, the better you,” said Kuhnke. “So when you are doing a play, you can be more evil or nicer or more beautiful. The better you. This was totally the opposite. To look into the feelings that you don’t want to have, that you don’t want to be a part of… It’s a non-performative kind of art because acting can be a performance.
“[Tomas] doesn’t have the sense of communicating with himself, communicating with his outer world,” he said. “He can’t put words on his feelings. He’s afraid. He has angst. He has guilt. He has everything.”
Tomas’s inability to examine his decision eventually spills into a scene outside their room in the large resort. He breaks down beside his wife into an hysterical crying fit. Kuhnke and Ostlund were inspired by a Youtube video, “Worst Man-Cry Ever,” and what begins as an empathetic emotional outburst transforms into a debilitating male portrait of uncontrollable sadness.
“If you see men cry on stage or screen it’s often very stone face, and then you see a tear coming down his eye, and then it takes a decision,” said Kuhnke, impersonating a man slamming his fist down. “But here… we wanted to get the outburst of the face and tear it apart and be so over the top, but at the same time to be real in that state.
“You see people who are struggling and become pathetic because being pathetic is a part of being a human being. And pathetic is quite fun to watch.”
The scene, in the labyrinthine resort, also seems determined to rekindle The Shining, both in its snowy exterior and emotionally volatile protagonist.
“All work and no play makes Tomas a dull boy,” joked Kuhnke.
Getting there wasn’t easy. Ostlund filmed many scenes in long takes, positioning the camera in one spot and letting his actors bring the stillness to life. Every scene was shot between 30-50 times, demanding regimens with which Kuhnke had little experience. However, it did allow him to analyze his movements on screen in the middle of shooting.
After 20 takes, Kuhnke said Ostlund would pause and make sure everyone evaluated their work. The process was grueling, but by the last ten takes, it forced a renewed dedication and focus, a different way into his complex character.
“[Ruben] seeks for perfection. Each scene matters,” said Kuhnke. “It’s like a painting. Every picture should be like a painting to be perfect.”
Kuhnke, in real life, is married to Alice Bah Kuhnke, a former television presenter now the Swedish Minister of Culture and Democracy, and has three children. By nature, Force Majeure has provoked a patriarchal conversation within his family and in many others. “Is this you? Am I married to this man?” Kuhnke recalls his wife asking him when first seeing the film. Tomas’s instinctual decision forced Kuhnke to examine how he might act in a tragic situation.
“I remember when I had my first child and I hadn’t connected to it,” he said. “It was just a piece of meat I was holding in my hands. We were going in the woods and I remember I had this thought. It was so crazy. If I step on a root and fall, will I keep this form to save this piece of meat or would I instinctively [extend my hands] to take away my fall? I was so afraid of that thought.”
That intriguing, internal dilemma is what drives Force Majeure and gives the film its controversial, contemplative gravity. The eventual discussion between Tomas and his wife, Ebba, migrates to their friends staying in the same resort, who have their own dialogue about how each person might behave in a disaster scenario. Kuhnke believes the film will breed these types of discussions but admitted it will be a harder one for his own people living in Sweden, a country isolated from the rest of the world.
“Sweden in a way is, we live our life, we’re so secure in our country,” said Kuhnke. “We haven’t been to war in a very, very, very long time. We haven’t had any epidemics, no major threats against us. So we can also create pictures of ourselves in our nuclear family. “I’m that kind of perfect person,” which is based out of nothing. Having this harmonic way of life, you get confronted with somebody that you didn’t think you were.”
Still, Kuhnke knows the film has already sparked important debates about contemporary culture and expectations of each gender. A school teacher approached him at Cannes and said her class had stopped its work for two days to discuss the film’s implications and society’s expectations of men and women, especially when life calls for heroism.
But playing the character of focus was a taxing role for Kuhnke, penning his emotions and playing somebody he hopes he hasn’t internalized. When he completed shooting, he escaped his character’s weaknesses with some more “manly” activities for catharsis, to regain some of his strength and refuel his masculinity.
“I went to Thaliand to kick box, to Muay-Thai, and that was really good therapy, said Kuhnke. “Just to hit the sack and go ‘ooh,’ ‘eeh,’ ‘ahh.’
“The hotel was closed after each day. I went out to run or go to the gym just to scream. It was so inside of me, this angst, I had to release it.”
– Jake Kring Schreifels