Alibi V.23 No.50 • Dec 11-17, 2014 

Film Review

Force Majeure

Natural disaster kills the mood in icy Swedish examination of love and marriage

Poor, deluded fools. You think you can keep the blackness of tooth decay at bay? Choke on your bourgeois ignorance!
Poor, deluded fools. You think you can keep the blackness of tooth decay at bay? Choke on your bourgeois ignorance!

Force Majeure

Directed by Ruben Östlund

Cast: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli

Picture it: A happy Swedish family on a lovely skiing vacation in the French Alps. Mom and dad, sister and brother all schussing down the slopes during the day, staying at a topnotch resort at night, huddling around the fire drinking cocoa whenever the mood strikes. That idyllic scenario serves as the unlikely backdrop to Ruben Östlund’s icy cold dissection of modern domestic bliss, Force Majeure.

Two days into the perfect winter vacation of Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their preteen kids (Clara and Vincent Wettergren), the unthinkable happens. As the family dines contentedly at the ski resort’s outdoor restaurant, an avalanche breaks loose from the mountaintop and hurtles down toward them. Dad reacts by leaping up from the table and running the hell away, abandoning his wife and kids to the cruel forces of nature. As it happens, the avalanche peters out before reaching the patio, dusting patrons in a light blanket of snow and fog. Everybody’s fine. Tomas’ family is fine. But his rash reaction reveals a spider web of stress fractures inherent in our happy family’s foundation.

At first, nobody really talks about the incident. They ignore it. They talk around it. But mom is quietly horrified. Dad is secretly mortified. And the kids are traumatized in that distracted way that kids can be—demanding ice cream and burying themselves in the glow of an iPad. But it soon becomes a splinter under the family’s skin. The more they scratch and pick at it, the worse it becomes, eventually festering into an open wound. The questions it raises even start to infect those around them, including a couple of friends (Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius) who innocently show up hoping to soak in some of the winter fun. Ultimately, of course, it seeps into the consciousness of its audience, sparking heated discussions. How would you ... ? Why should you ... ? Could this ever ... ?

Like a lot of European films these days, Force Majeure is in no hurry to get its story out. There are plenty of long, static, wide shots that refuse to give characters the courtesy of a cutaway. Instead, Östlund’s laser-sharp camera lingers on everyone’s awkward, uncomfortable pain. Despite the unhurried nature, Force Majeure works up some sizable discomfort and tension. And, it should be noted, a measurable amount of black humor. If you find other people’s existential angst humorous. Which the Swedes clearly do.

Does crisis really bring out our true selves, or is it just as likely to produce a false negative?

Östlund’s deceptively simple premise/discussion-starter is gorgeously shot. The screen is constantly filled with stunning, stark-white vistas (courtesy of Les Arcs ski resort in Provence). The scenery is simply breathtaking, but it constantly reminds you that nature is a gigantic, dangerous, uncontrollable thing. The looming mountains, the threatening snowstorms, the unexpected “Boom!” of the avalanche cannons: All conspire to keep viewers on edge. It kinda feels like somebody’s bound to die horribly somewhere along the line. But it’s the little, everyday horrors that the filmmakers are most interested in here.

Tomas’ masculinity takes a near-fatal hit when he realizes he’s not the man he thought he was. Did he react badly? Of course. But it was a spur of the moment reaction. Does crisis really bring out our true selves, or is it just as likely to produce a false negative? Ebba, meanwhile, finds her previously happy marriage now awash in doubt. She’s suddenly using her husband’s perceived cowardice to become the aggrieved mama bear protecting her children from ... well, that’s the real question. Are the kids scared of what happened, or are they scared of how their parents are reacting to what happened?

Most of us live in the modern, industrialized world, where we’re frequently coddled and overly protected. What really is there to fear these days? Avalanches are scary, sure. But in this case, it didn’t really happen. The kids weren’t actually in danger. It was more of a “conceptual” avalanche—one that exposes the real domestic bugaboos of growing up, getting married, having kids, accepting responsibility, growing old and dying. Yeah, those are things we all experience in some combination or another. But it doesn’t mean we’re not terrified by them. And in the real world, responsibility can be scarier than any monster.

Somewhere between the banal horrors of Michael Haneke (Benny’s Video, Caché, Funny Games, The Piano Teacher) and the detached decay of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage sits this chilly, challenging look in the mirror. At the end of the day—or in the case of this narrative, the end of five days—Force Majeure doesn’t exactly tell us what we’re supposed to think about this family (or, by extension, ourselves). Are we all just weak, scared babies at heart? Is modern manhood endangered? Are we too quick to find fault in others and too blind to our own flaws? Those needing a more closed-ended narrative should move on. Those willing to ponder the provocative questions this film sends tumbling down the mountainside are advised to give it a run.