Directed by Ruben Östlund
Released in 2014
A staple of disaster movies is the breathless proclamation of love: The world may end any moment, so let me tell you now how much I love you, baby. By this yardstick, Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure is an anti-disaster movie, both literally, because the avalanche early on in the film turns out to be innocuous, maiming no one, and generically, because that false alarm awakens only hostility between two lovers and everyone they meet. For the confidence and subtlety with which it goes about saying all it has on mind, Force Majeure already feels like a classic, and it’s both hard-hitting and grotesquely comical enough that time very well may agree.
The premise is one of caustic genius. While vacationing at a ski resort in the French Alps, an upper-middle class Swedish family sits down for lunch when they witness a controlled avalanche build a threatening momentum towards them. At first the father Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) laughs off the rising voices of his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), son Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and daughter Vera (Clara Wettergren), but just as a cloud of snow consumes the balcony they’re on, Tomas decks an old man to the ground as he sprints off the scene, with only his iPhone in hand. After a minute of unease, the cloud dissipates and Tomas returns to the table where his abandoned family sits, shell-shocked. The rest of the film tries to come to terms with what Tomas revealed to his family when their lives were threatened most.
This film has many, but not too many, ideas weaving in and out of one another, and chief among them is an interrogation of gender relations. When acting on instincts of the blood and nerves, Tomas is clearly a coward, but when the dust settles he too settles back into the never-scarce persona that is the suave, deflecting male authority figure. Whether he is conscious of his aggression or not, he casts his wife as overly dramatic and tells her, while recounting a modified version of their episode to a couple friends over dinner, “You got a bit afraid but…” before gesturing to himself.
Ebba knows Tomas, by virtue of his gender, can determine the narrative of what happened, but she also knows that no one likes messing with a shrieking bitch who has downed one too many glasses of wine, and so she — again, whether conscious of it or not — demeans herself in the company of friends in order to set the record straight. Lisa Loven Kongsli digs into a Bergman-esque monologue, filmed mostly in one take, with the kind of simultaneous severity and sensitivity indicative of great talent, and given the acclaim this film has received since premiering in May at Cannes, we should expect to see her again.
Occasionally, Östlund’s camera crops Ebba’s head out of the frame, while her husband and children sit and lie down and, most of all, complain below her — if there’s any visual metaphor that better illustrates the invisibility that comes with being an intelligent woman and mother, I have not seen it. Ebba is, in fact, fiercely, dogmatically intelligent, to the point where she distrusts the emotions of others, particularly those of her husband. She has now seen that his very wiring prioritizes his safety over that of his family and how can she live with that? No amount of penance can change that fact, which explains why Östlund films an emotional scene late in the film from alienating, hilarious angles — Ebba knows melodrama is all a lie at this point, and you’ll know from the opening shots that Östlund believes the same.
Like Jacques Tati, Östlund tells his story, or rather the discomfiting truths that lie below it, through its setting. This luxury ski resort must promise families a good time to reconnect, yet the film features, in near-silent sterility, the automated devices like ski tows and moving walkways that isolate these family members from one another and keep them in rote single file. Ambient sounds like screeching ski lifts, electric toothbrushes and the vibration from cell phones provide comic relief in a slightly (and purposefully) annoying way, jabbing us until we realize there is no nature, and thus no bliss, for the affluent family so in love with their objects.
Force Majeure has three amazing, borderline surreal moments, one of which I will not spoil (though I will say it’s inexplicably loud) and the other, at the very end, from which I will vaguely conclude has to do with how armistice is the default state of modern marriage. The other one, which occurs first, unfolds in one long shot, when Tomas and his Norwegian pal Mats (Kristofer Hivju, Tormund Giantsbane from Game of Thrones and much nicer here) sit on flimsy folding chairs and sip from frosty pilsner glasses. It’s mid-day, yet a throbbing EDM song blares from off-screen speakers and a young girl approach the men to express her friend’s interest in Tomas. She leaves, they grin and starting bobbing their head along, yet she returns to clarify that her friend was looking at another man, adjacent to them, not Tomas — god almighty, not Tomas. It’s a profoundly awkward scene, basically Force Majeure in microcosm: Everyone wants to break the rules, but more than anything the world knows how to break you, and will, if you refuse to notice the cracks.
4 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.