“This whole ‘women and children first’ is a myth,” says Ruben Östlund, director of the 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure. His movie poses the uncomfortable question: are men the heroic protectors of the family that they are expected to be, or simply slaves to a selfish survival instinct?
Force Majeure has already won the Un Certain Regard Award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, as well as a Golden Globe nomination, and now it is Sweden’s entry for a Best Foreign Film Oscar too. It tells the story of Tomas, his wife Ebba, and their two children vacationing at a ski resort in the French Alps. While lunching at an outdoor restaurant, the family observes a controlled avalanche designed to prevent snow from piling up to dangerous levels.
But the avalanche rolls so swiftly and threatening close that Tomas panics and bolts, leaving his family to fend for themselves even though Ebba calls out to him to help her protect their children. When the expected catastrophe doesn’t materialize, the humiliated Tomas has exposed himself to be less of a man than a family patriarch is expected to be. The film is about him trying to recover his manhood as the family’s dynamics begin to disintegrate.
Feminism notwithstanding, a man is still largely considered the protector of his family. If he fails at that, the shame and guilt can be especially profound. Tomas is struggling with what Östlund calls these “expectations on gender, the role of the man and the woman.” As he told an interviewer: “Very often we are forced into those roles, like how a man should stand up and protect his family when something dangerous is happening. When Tomas doesn’t do that, he is in many ways losing his identity.”
So far, no argument from me. But then Östlund reveals a very pessimistic perspective on men: “We are struck by survival instinct,” he says. “It’s comparable to a truck going towards you and you throw yourself to the side. It’s not a rational thing. It’s just a reaction. This whole ‘women and children first’ is a myth.”
This notion makes for an intriguing film, but in reality he’s got it completely backward. Recent studies confirm that it is not selfishness that derives from intuitive, spontaneous action, but altruism. People who risk their own lives to save others, even total strangers, are the ones who act on the right thing without thinking. Pausing to second-guess oneself is what leads to acts of self-preservation.
And Östlund’s example of throwing oneself out of the path of a truck is off the mark; one that is more appropriate to his film would be if that truck were bearing down on a man and his family. Would he simply leap to safety, leaving his wife to pull their children out of the way? Hardly likely, I suspect.
The director goes on to make another unflattering claim about men’s nature:
If you look at the percentages of survivors in ferry catastrophes, the ones who survive most are men. They tend to be aggressive. If you start to help people when it comes to a crisis situation, you don’t survive. Even though our culture teaches to stand up, when survival instinct comes in, culture goes out.
The notable example of the Titanic aside, Östlund is correct that men on sinking ships out-survive women and children, though the reasons for this are unclear (one factor might be men’s generally stronger physical condition). But again, connecting this to the theme of his movie, his suggestion is that even family men would willingly abandon their own wives and children to a watery grave in order to save themselves. While no one can know for certain how he would react in a life-threatening situation, I find it almost impossible to envision any father I know – myself included – acting as Tomas does in Force Majeure.
When his interviewer asked Östlund about the film’s setting as a metaphor, he replied: “The ski resort is where man tries to control nature,” Östlund replied. “It’s a struggle between the civilized and the uncivilized. That is also happening for Tomas. He’s exposing an uncivilized side of himself that he wants to keep under control.”
That may be the case for his fictional character, but in the real world there are far too many examples of altruistic behavior at risk of life and limb to accept Östlund’s proposition that men are nothing more than instinctually selfish genes – especially when it comes to putting their lives on the line for their own families.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/14/15)