Monday, July 24, 2017

Turist (2014): A Review

I can't stop thinking about Ruben Östlund's Turist (released in some parts of the world as Force Majeure), that long, strained, strange, and glorious 2014 Swedish movie about a marriage on the slow melt during a week-long French ski vacation. Rarely have I just straightforwardly loved a movie as much as I did this, on first viewing. There's nothing I even particularly want to mock in order to start this review off in style, as I usually feel compelled to do even with films I liked (I guess so as to hedge my bets). I can't do it with this one. Pretty much every frame in this thing was well chosen. The movie is painful and devastatingly funny, with the pain perfectly abetting the humor and vice versa.

Part of the effect is achieved by the director's accomplished use of the camera. The film consists in large part of a series of steady shots, often placed far from the action and with a key speaking character's head half-cropped out of the image, and the camera's obstinate refusal to move in the slightest from its awkward position while it records the often excruciating dialogue and events stretches the tension past breaking point, into laughter, and then past that again, back into embarrassment. All of which would just be an exercise in torture if the script was lousy -- fortunately, this one happens to be brilliant. Once again, the Scandinavians prove to be the world's reigning masters of the rueful and mortifying family drama, from Vredens Dag to Fadren. I guess a lot of things get said on those long winter nights, when everyone is confined together, that can't get taken back.

The film's choice of setting in the chilly alpine resort is perfect for its subject matter, and manages to capture what must be the universal emotional hue of ski resorts the world over, with its anxious sense that no one is really having as much fun as they are supposed to, the awkward sudden intimacy of chairlift rides where someone has to decide when to make the first move toward lowering the safety bar, the self-torture of ski boots (the question of whether or not it is possible to run in them will become a plot point in Turist), the unpredictable emotional collapses of small children, the incongruous eruption of the possibility of real danger into an otherwise hyper-privileged and cosseted atmosphere in the form of unexpected white-outs and snow slippages, the silence of swinging lift-chairs suddenly stalled over the most gut-churning abysses -- the parts that one prayed would be the one place where you didn't get stuck. Then there is the surface-level cosmopolitanism of the place. The facile internationalism generated by the fact that people have come here from all over the world, and yet they all originate from the same income bracket and work for roughly the same kind of companies -- and everyone speaks English, as they do for large stretches of this movie.

The couple at the center of the film, Tomas and Ebba, sit apparently at the apex of this same perverse global hierarchy, as do most of their fellow turists. Every character with a major speaking role is lily-white in this film, their children are all toting gadgets, and everyone's outfit is impeccably stylish. And the movie conveys a rather accurate impression of the discomfort that such people experience with themselves and each other when they are brought together in large numbers. It is a discomfort born of the fact that most of them are ordinary enough people the rest of the year, who work and take their kids to school. But for this one brief stretch of time, when they are on vacation, they have cast themselves in the role of pure consumers, existing simply to enjoy themselves, or to project the outward image of enjoyment. The burden of trying to live up to privileges that one does not really feel one deserves, and that one is not in the act of earning, is a great strain on the conscience. "I don't like the people we are here," says Ebba at one point, and later -- "I'm here in this fancy hotel, and I'm not happy -- I don't like it." From Belle de Jour on, has a film ever portrayed a couple at a ski resort in a way that conveyed any emotion apart from bourgeois angst?

In a more obvious way than this, however, the film is about the real flimsiness of our self-images, and the instability of the images we cultivate in the eyes of others, including those closest to us. And it is about the enormous fear attached to the possibility of losing those images -- of losing face, of shrinking in the esteem of others. In the pivotal early scene, Tomas, the husband, is calmly explaining to his children that an avalanche above them, which appears to be descending on their base-level restaurant from the top of the mountain, is merely a "controlled" release of excess snow. As it grows and the billows of snow draw closer, Ebba remarks, "that doesn't look controlled to me," then Tomas lunges away from the family in terror as the cloud descends on them, taking only "his iPhone and gloves," as his wife will observe several times later on, with some scorn, and momentarily abandoning the rest of them. While it ends up being a false alarm -- it was only the snow dust and not the avalanche itself that reached them -- Tomas's prestige has inevitably fallen.

The whole scene, by the way -- like virtually every one in the movie -- is hysterically funny, in a way that is extremely difficult to convey in a prose description of it, even though (or perhaps because) it never deploys slapstick or any aggressive comedic tactics. When I first read about the film in the New York Review of Books back when it was released, I pictured it, based on the dispassionate account of the plot, as a kind of bleak Bergman-esque meditation, rather than -- well, whatever it actually is.

Most of the rest of the film is taken up with Tomas and Ebba's quietly sincere efforts not to have an argument about what happened, and with the way in which that argument continually breaks through regardless. They are both actually quite decent and lovely people, which is part of what makes this a heartbreaking film, despite all the comedy. There is laughter, but not at their expense.

Other key film elements include appearances by Tomas's brother Mats, a kind of wild-eyed, dubiously-employed Erik the Red in his late Thirties with a 20-year-old girlfriend, to describe whom I'm tempted to christen a new archetype -- the Viking schlemiel. Mats offers various ingenious defenses of his brother's behavior in Ebba's presence, including the supposition that Tomas actually meant to get away so that he could be sure that one member of the family was free to dig the others out from under the snow after it had coated them; but when Mats' young girlfriend remarks to him later that "you and Tomas are much the same kind of man," he is driven to try obsessively to defeat the point, and convince her that he would "do anything to protect his family."

That's pretty much it. That's all that happens. It lasts two hours and is somehow never dull.


The obvious and uninteresting line of analysis of the movie would be to focus on what it has to say about gender roles, and to extract from it the thesis that -- for all the egalitarianism of the modern couples portrayed in the film -- the burden of role expectations where physical courage is concerned still falls more heavily on the male partner. *Yawn.* That notion would be a lot more worth exploring if it wasn't so stale, if there weren't an endless series of (often considerably more difficult and unrealistic) role expectations dogging women in the nuclear family relationship as well, and if -- most crucially -- one didn't come away from the film with the feeling that a quite similar plot could have unfolded if Ebba had been the one to dart from the table, rather than Tomas (indeed, the end of the film suggests such a possibility).

While there is a distinctly male bent to the variety of angst portrayed so well in this film, it seems to me that the true subject of the movie is far more universal than that. It even extends beyond romantic partnerships to cover pretty much any relationship that is formed between human beings. It is, roughly, this: we cannot live without making promises to one another, indeed all of our most important bonds in life depend on an ability to make and keep promises, and yet what is most important to maintain within those relationships -- at least according to the Romantic-era expectations that I and most people in my immediate radius grew up imbibing -- is precisely the one thing that cannot really be promised: namely, that one will have a certain feeling about the other person. "To breed an animal that is entitled to make promises—surely that is the essence of the paradoxical task nature has set itself where human beings are concerned?," said Nietzsche, in the Genealogy of Morals (Ian Johnston trans.). We can question the success of nature's experiment. Ebba throughout the film really tries to feel exactly the way she did before about Tomas. She tried to believe him that nothing happened, and nothing has changed. But, in spite of herself, she just does not see him in quite the way she used to. She is nearly as much broken up about this as her husband.

She cannot control how she feels. Neither can Tomas control her feelings. This is a terrifying realization -- the fear at the heart of this film -- because it means that no one's relationship is ever perfectly secure. However much has been promised, however much may have been given as collateral to the deal, there is no way to guarantee the one thing we are actually taught to want and expect from the relationship -- love. As much as Tomas and Ebba might appear from the outside to be people who have achieved stasis at the top of the global supply chain, the conditions of their happiness are in fact as unstable as everyone else's.

The fear of loneliness that can result from all this can be dizzying. "You're still young and pretty," says Ebba at one point, speaking to a more free-wheeling woman she meets at the resort who is in a variety of open relationships. "It's okay for you now. But don't you worry about the future? Don't you worry about being left behind?" In other words, if all our relationships last as long as the feeling that sparked them, then what guarantees can we rely on? Who's to say we will not be alone at the end of it, no one at our side? Shades of Nora Helmer here, since we're on the subject of Nordic nuptial angst: "[S]omeday, perhaps, [...] when Torvald is no longer as devoted to me as he is now; when my dancing and dressing-up and reciting have palled on him; then it may be a good thing to have something in reserve." (Sharp trans.)

But on the other hand, we tend to be in general agreement that, if there is not any trace of feeling left, the relationship is not particularly worth maintaining. Or even, that the relationship is already dead. It's too late, baby, sang Carole King. It's quite a conundrum we've made for ourselves, then, with our Western Romanticism, which is why those who never took to this worldview in the first place can certainly look on at the anxieties portrayed in this film with a certain feeling of vindication, and maybe even a frisson of Schadenfreude. A Chinese-American friend of mine, who's been trying to talk me out of the Romantic conception of human relationships for years, harps frequently on the point that the obvious way out of the Catch-22 described above is to base the "promise" at the heart of a marriage or other commitment on something that has nothing at all to do with "feeling" -- something instead like an arranged marriage, preferably in a cultural context that does not allow for divorce. The romantic feelings, to the extent they are necessary, will follow in due course -- indeed, they will arrive in a better form, according to my friend, because they will be unmixed by the kind of relentless and terrified cross-examination to which they are subjected in societies where everyone is supposed to be swooning with love all the time, unless something has "gone wrong in the relationship."

While this is not a view of the matter that particularly appeals to me -- or, I suspect, to many of my readers -- I did unexpectedly find a handy little poetic tag to epitomize it, in Hugh MacDiarmid's "Drunk Man Looking at a Thistle," and this has done a little to endear it to me:
Pit ony couple in a knot, [Says M'D]
They canna lowse and needna try,
And mair o' love at last they'll ken
-- If ocht! -- than joy'll alane descry.

Pithy summas from MacDiarmid apart, however, it seems to me that the difficulties with this arrangement outweigh its advantages, real as those may be. For one thing, it seems like it is probably the kind of thing that people cannot really go back to, once liberalism exists. It was possible in the naïve pre-liberal state of the world perhaps to have commitments that were so strongly backed up by social sanctions that people did not seriously think of transgressing them; but in a modern society where -- like it or not -- the option of exiting a relationship does in fact exist, and one can find alternative social worlds where it is not treated with scorn, there will always come a point at which one member or the other of a relationship may be pushed past breaking point and decide to leave. The "knot" that they "canna lowse and needna try" is not a social reality in the societies depicted in this film, so we are back with our original fear and instability.

Oh, right, and there's also the idea that maybe people shouldn't be forced to live for the rest of their lives with the consequences of a prior decision, which they may find later to have been misguided. Maybe marriage, in short, shouldn't be a life sentence.

More importantly still, there is a sense in which, as much as our Romantic individualism inspires fear of the mutability of human feelings, it also braces people against the more truly dangerous efforts to eliminate that mutability, to freeze people's emotions in place. By developing a habit of relating to people in society as autonomous and self-directed individuals -- more importantly, as equals -- we strengthen the emotional muscles that will yield us the ability not to ground our sense of self in the position we hold in the eyes of another person. In modern, roughly gender-egalitarian societies such as those found in Scandinavia, the fear of loss depicted in this film may lead to heartache -- and leads oftentimes to more genuine damage to a marriage or other committed relationship than what is portrayed in this (somewhat ambiguously) happy-ending movie -- but it is at least somewhat less likely to lead to violence and  abuse. In places where people's individual rights are not so clearly defined, however, and where there is often in consequence an imbalance of financial, social, and legal power between the two members of the couple, the pathological wish can evolve more readily not only to control another person's physical existence, but to control their emotions as well.

Which, of course, thankfully, it is not possible to do. As the Bible says, tyrants can kill the body but they cannot kill the spirit. The terrible corollary to this is, however, that those who find they cannot kill -- or at least, dominate -- the spirit, may resort to attacks on the body. When the brother Mats in this film keeps his girlfriend up till all hours, grilling her about whether she truly meant what she said about suspecting him of cowardice, it is played successfully for laughs. Mats's obsession is endearing, and his refusal to convince himself that the girlfriend is not simply lying to comfort him and to get some peace is all too recognizable. But suppose it went on far past that one night. Suppose there never was any relief for the girlfriend from the impossible bind of the "no right answer," where a "yes" is resented and a "no" is doubted. The literary parallel that comes most readily to mind drains all humor from the scene. One thinks of the endless "interrogations" conducted by the narrator of Ernesto Sabato's El Túnel, on the subjects of whether María truly loves him, whether she fakes her orgasms, whether she is sleeping with her cousin, and so on, until at last he becomes the murderer of the novel's opening line, "el pintor que mató a María Iribarne." His mania for control is continually frustrated by the fact that another person -- any other person-- is always fundamentally unknowable on some level, a perpetual mystery.

All of which is to say, there remains within every person an inextinguishable core of freedom. There is thus an element of liberalism, if you will, that is built into the very nature of things. Even when a person can extract words by force or wheedling and pleading from another, there is always the possibility that those words are lies (the possibility that obsesses Mats, and, in a more sinister way, the protagonist of Sabato's novel). A tyrant can monopolize a person's whole life, they can enslave their body, but they cannot coerce from them either love or respect. (One rather suspects that this is the knowledge that haunts Donald Trump and Assad and Putin and Sisi and most would-be dictators, and that leads to their manias for ever greater power.) As Roxana writes to Usbek in the last of Montesquieu's Persian Letters, a final dispatch from the seraglio: "I have lived in slavery, and yet always retained my freedom: [...] my mind has always maintained its independence. [...] For a long time you have had the satisfaction of believing that you had conquered a heart like mine: now we are both delighted: you thought me deceived, and I have deceived you." (Davidson trans.) Montesquieu is right to depict Roxana's deception as the last, and perhaps therefore most important, defense of human moral freedom against all efforts to stalk, control, humiliate and dominate -- whether by a government or a partner. As Georges Bernanos writes, "Lying had never seemed wrong to Mouchette, for it is the most precious -- perhaps the only -- privilege of the wretched." (Whitehouse trans.)

The practices of equality and autonomy cultivated by liberal modernity are -- at the risk of being tautological -- a great historical training in the art of respecting this same moral freedom, of learning to control oneself rather than others. But the degree of detachment it requires, in its more hypertrophied forms, the ability to relinquish the desire to hold on to a given state of affairs, to a certain image of oneself and image in the eyes of one's loved ones, by any means necessary, is no small thing to ask of ordinary mortals. Indeed, the freewheeling woman whom Ebba is talking to in the scene described above is portrayed as a kind of superhuman -- a monster of successful social adjustment and sexual health. When Ebba poses her question about whether or not the woman is afraid for the future, whether she is not concerned at the possibility of being "left behind" by her husband, the woman tells her that she recognizes the possibility, but that she does not mind because she has "many other people in [her] life who are important to her," and that she has never been so foolish as to "base her self-esteem on being a wife and mother."

Most of us, the weak of the world, struggle to have so many options. We are not so cool as that. We have a smaller range of social acquaintance. We will, almost inevitably, allow our sense of self to become tangled up with the role we play in the lives of loved ones. We will become desperately attached to a given status quo. To the notion of ourselves as patriarch or matriarch or whatever the case may be.

This is what the makers of Turist are suggesting. This is what makes it such uncomfortable viewing. It dwells on subjects that are not pleasant ones for a modern liberal audience to contemplate, the possibility stalking our consciousness that we are after all not really up to the challenges we have set ourselves, in our egalitarian and individualistic civilization, that we are not as autonomous as we thought, not as detached as we thought, that our perceived autonomy was an illusion that can be fractured in a second by an avalanche that changes a loved one's opinion of us forever.

By dredging up these phantom fears from the liberal subconscious, Turist courts controversy. We are probably tempted on some level to respond to it angrily, to denounce Tomas for cowardice, so as to prove that his weakness is not ours. We want to mimic the bravado of the free-spirited woman, who has so many irons in the social fire she is content to occasionally lose one.

But we wouldn't respond so defensively to the film, in this way, if we didn't ultimately have mixed feelings about liberalism's relentless drive toward individuality and autonomy. If we didn't feel afraid, beneath it all, that it all was going to result in our loneliness; in our being -- as Ebba says -- "left behind."

But how could anyone be left out by the cultural revolution that is unfolding? Isn't it all tending toward openness, rather than closure? Toward, in its way, togetherness? For much of the past century, the conventional narrative about liberal societies, after all, has portrayed us all as irrevocably trending toward the lifestyle of the hotel free-spirit whom Ebba meets. There will be more sex with a wider range of partners, more romance, more "love." But reading some recent Guardian coverage about the  sexual behavior of millennials, one wonders if perhaps the more logical culmination of the drive toward increasing bodily autonomy is the eventual extinction of sex as well. If the post-post modern society will not also be post-coital. Which wouldn't be a hard adjustment for me -- after all, I'm one of those millennials. But it would be one more example of a kind of human experience and a way of living that was swept away by the onward march of liberal modernity, much like arranged marriage. And one can feel a touch of nostalgia for these many casualties, for all the legitimate objections raised against them. And one can wonder if we are quite sure we know what we intend to put in their place, apart from the abyss.

And immediately [...] 
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless. (From Philip Larkin, "High Windows")

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