Force Majeure (2014)
Dir: Ruben Östlund
Force Majeure hinges on a single moment. A man is confronted with an impossible situation and, given no time to think, his autonomous fight-or-flight response kicks in. The rest of the movie deals with the fallout of that act, as we watch the slow dissolution of a family and wonder if there’s any chance for redemption. Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund brings an exquisite tension and keen eye for detail to this forceful family drama of consequences, and leavens it with a wicked streak of black humour.
The plot is this: Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli are vacationing Swedish couple Tomas and Ebba. Tomas is a workaholic, unable to divorce himself from his phone, and Ebba is his beautiful wife with the outwardly placid demeanour. Their towheaded school-aged children Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren) complete the picture of perfect familial domesticity. The vacation is a chance for the family to reconnect, Ebba explains to a new acquaintance, a time for Tomas to put away distractions and spend 5 days with his wife and kids. Title cards helpfully introduce each day in a neat bit of foreboding that’s compounded by the operatic score.
It’s on the second day that the titular “Act of God” occurs, truly setting the wheels of plot into motion. While enjoying an outdoor midday meal mountain-side, the family sees an avalanche approaching. As the resort regularly sets off controlled demolitions to manage the falling snow, the bystanders expect this to simply be another innocuous occurrence. Despite Tomas’ assurances to his increasingly worried family, the wall of snow continues to gather speed as it barrels towards him and his family. In a too-quick moment the danger is real and all is engulfed in white as screams and chaos reign. The telling part is Tomas’ reaction – he grabs his gloves and phone and leaves behind his family as they cry out to him for help. Horrific and immediate, it’s a bravura white-knuckle sequence that takes place entirely in a single shot. It’s also darkly comedic for Tomas’ cowardly actions. (Tomas’ friend later half-heartedly tries to justify Tomas’ actions by stating that “he knew he had to grab a shovel to dig them out, so it was a brave act.”) Ultimately the resultant “avalanche” was more a cloud of fog that left a dusting of snow across the restaurant patio; shaken but safe, the family resumes eating in silence.
Tomas tries to shrug off his actions and maintains his own version of events, but Ebba is stalwart in what she witnessed. With the true measure of her husband revealed, she has to decide how or even if she can move forward. There are dinners with other vacationing couples that grow increasingly tense and awkward as more wine flows and Ebba picks at Tomas like a scab, eager for him to be culpable and honest. Small gestures, like leaving the toilet seat up or neglecting to say goodnight, take on heavy import in this cold war of wills between the couple that’s played out in front of their distraught children, their embarrassed friends, and (most hilariously) a stone-faced custodian who’s seemingly ever-present.
With lots of long takes and mirrored shots, we often feel like interlopers to this family drama. The strategy works as the tension is ratcheted up and our voyeuristic impulses are indulged. Lengthy, languid shots of the picturesque mountains and the mechanical workings of the chairlifts, snow machines, and other resort minutia frame the story as it moves forward like clockwork, effectively showing how petty their squabbles are while reinforcing their vulnerability in the face of an Act of God. These rich geographic details combine lockstep with the naturalistic dialogue and stellar acting, create a veracity and intensity that’s all too real.
Force Majeure stands as an interesting and idiosyncratic film. It’s cynical about relationships and gives long odds to their ability to withstand storms, yet shows characters finding kinship and comfort with another, hopeful that whatever was broke can be fixed. The movie has a symmetrical structure, with the family facing another crisis late in the game and an unlikely chance for redemption given. There’s an odd coda afterwards that calls into question character’s motives and shifts sympathies around as well, leaving the audience with more questions than answers. It’s not an easy film in this regard, providing ample fodder for discussion and dissection afterwards. A taut and gripping drama that peers deep into the human experience while still being fleet and funny, Force Majeure is the work of an assured and inquisitive filmmaker. Östlund focuses his lens on his subjects and allows it to reflect back on us, showing us the storm and stress that lives inside and what happens when it’s given voice.