Chris Palazzolo examines the genealogy of the cigarette in Force Majeure, directed by Ruben Ostlund, 2014
The cigarette Johannes Bah Kuhnke smokes on the walk down the mountain road at the end of Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure would have to be one of the most well-earned in the history of cinema. This may seem like an exaggeration, especially when one considers the long relationship the cinema has had with the cigarette. From Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame lighting each other’s cigarettes in In A Lonely Place, to the ANZACs in Gallipoli sharing a last fag before running into a hail of Turkish lead, or the gitane the teenage collaborator splutters on as he turns the Jewish boy over to the German soldiers in Au revoir, les enfants, to the thousand packets that Robert De Niro smokes in Casino, the cigarette would have to be one of cinema’s most complex and mysterious motifs, comparable, in the amount of meaning it generates, to that of the gun. Just from these four examples I’ve chosen one can see the range of attributes it signifies – sophistication, mortality, villainy, and will. To say that the one smoked in Force Majeure is the most well-earned is definitely a bold claim. I will hold to it though because it has against it something that none of those other examples had against them – the hostility of contemporary ‘healthy living’ discourses, and the progressive ‘bricking up’ by the modern state all legal avenues for its consumption.
Force Majeure is about faultlines; glacial faults which open up a faultline in an apparently stable marriage. When a Swedish family, holidaying in the French Alps, think an avalanche is about to hit them, the husband panics and runs, leaving his wife and kids behind. The shock of the near miss and the husband’s apparent cowardice, causes a crisis in the family; the wife wonders whether she loves her husband anymore; the husband suffers crushing shame and the horrible prospect of loneliness, the kids worry that their parents are going to divorce. The psychodrama is like a series of continuing aftershocks as the husband and wife flail about in increasingly irresponsible attempts to overcome the awful ambivalence that’s opened up between them like a crevasse. By the end of the holiday a sort of reconciliation has taken place between them (though not the adventure of being in the mountains), and when the tourists are forced to walk part way down the mountain, the husband lights up the cigarette in question, much to the surprise of his children.
This cigarette, lit on the mountainside, signifies the origins of the faultline in the couple’s marriage. It does this in the same way that Rosebud signified the lost childhood of Charles Kane in Citizen Kane; that is as a thing that was present when the faultline-causing event happened, and whose disappearance after that event is in some sense causal. Semiotics would call this kind of sign an Index. An index is a sign that signifies its object by direct connection to it. The American philosopher Charles Peirce used the example of a weather vane which signifies wind direction by being blown by the wind. In Force Majeure the faultline in the marriage is something that was lost signified by one of those lost things appearing again now that the fault has opened up. The avalanche is the catalyst for opening the fault but the faultline was already there, and I think the inference can be made that the husband gave up smoking when he got married. This ‘little sacrifice’ came to signify all the rough edges of bachelorhood that were planed off in order for him to become the smooth family man he appears to be at the start of the film. A lingering dissatisfaction that lay latent during his marriage led him to forget his family at that split second of crisis. After all the bickering of the following days, the anguish, the joyless skiing, the discussions on the hero complex, and then an amazing third act in which the mountain has one more surprise to humble the mortals, the husband lights up his first cigarette since his bucks’ night. By redistributing snow on the side of a mountain, force majeure has redistributed power in a marriage.
– Chris Palazzolo
Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world.
The official trailer for Force Majeure