by Kathie Smith
No more than 15 minutes into Ruben Östlund’s Force majeure, we are faced with an unexpected tragedy: a controlled avalanche (something quite opposite to force majeure, a contractual term meaning “Act of God”) makes its way down a mountain slope towards an open air restaurant as it quickly gets larger, faster and closer. The patrons, including the family of four at the center of the movie, passively look on as interest turns to fascination, fascination turns to fear, and fear turns to the adrenal induced instincts of the father, mother and their two terrified children. A still shot gives the audience an omniscient eye to an incident that, in its aftermath, transforms into a slow motion emotional train wreck, skewering and manipulating the picture-perfect family unit.
Director: Ruben Östlund
Producers: Erik Hemmendorff, Marie Kjellson
Writer: Ruben Östlund
Cinematographer: Fredrik Wenzel
Editor: Jacob Secher Schulsinger
Music: Ola Fløttum
Cast: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Brady Corbet, Jakob Granqvist, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius
Premiere: May 18, 2014 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 24, 2014
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are on holiday with their two young children, Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren), at a ski resort nestled into a surreally beautiful setting in the French Alps. Their precedent for a vacation, Ebba explains, is because Tomas works too much and now he has time to “focus on his family.” The film opens on the slopes with a photographer cajoling the family into showing affection towards one another, their ski gear—boots, helmets, gloves—acting as protective gear for the carefree bourgeois family playing the part. Shortly after (but before the avalanche), when Ebba reviews the photos that were taken, she fawns over the ones taken of her kids but stares quietly at the ones of her and her husband, as if she doesn’t recognize, or is embarrassed by, the couple who looks so happy.
This kind of subtle dissection becomes all the more severe when—facing a potential life or death situation—Tomas’s inherent impulse to flee, abandoning his heroic patriarchal duty, shakes their relationship to the core. The avalanche stops just short of the outdoor patio, but engulfs it in a fog of snow kicked up by the deluge. When the dust settles, Ebba, Harry and Vera, visibly shocked, release from a collective embrace to return to their table, as if not knowing what to do. Nearly five beats later (an eternity when your heart is racing), Tomas casually strolls back into the frame and sits down with them, making an off-the-cuff remark about how crazy that was. His daughter Vera, sitting across from him, can only look away from his nonchalant response. The complacency that this family was lulled into, as far as their roles as well as their love and trust, has just hit a brick wall and shattered.
Instead of drawing out conflict like a firestorm, Östlund, a director from Sweden taking his subjects to France, uses abrupt and barbed methods to pull this story through the wringer, taking the audience with it. Nary a word is said between Tomas and Ebba about what happened while tensions slowly mount between them. Having a drink with another couple that evening, Tomas recounts the event, and when Ebba accuses him of running away, he denies it. As their uncomfortable public argument lasts far longer than it should, Tomas’s selective memory goes into overdrive, burying his cowardice beneath a veneer of masculinity. Unable (or unwilling) to own up to actions, let alone apologize, Tomas pushes Ebba even further away.
Emotions are rarely laid so bare as they are in Force majeure—the avalanche is nothing compared to the tempest unleashed between Tomas and Ebba and passed on to their children (despite the fact that the parents retreat to the hall for discussions). Östlund has had practice fostering discomfort through provocative narratives—his 2011 film Play exhibited a prolonged and disturbing show of relentless bullying among a group of boys. Likewise and equally unpredictable, Force majeure elicits some poignant questions about the meaning of commitment and puts the fragile structure of the family unit on full display. Perhaps more to the point, it also questions what it means to be the figurative head of a family and how men react to society’s expectations of unequivocal virility.
Compared to Play, which takes place in drab settings around the city of Gothenburg, Östlund raises the bar on his visual pastiche. Taking advantage of the dreamlike location, something like a European Overlook Hotel for the 1%, and punctuated by Antonio Vivaldi’s third movement of Summer from The Four Seasons, Force majeure feels anxious and otherworldly. But even beyond setting, the shots and the framing are as expressive as the vivid and careful script. The family, wearing matching thermal underwear that you can almost picture them shopping for, often occupy the frame like portraiture, mimicking those initial scenes with the photographer. But as the movie carries on, the more that portrait becomes fragmented and alarming.
Force majeure’s pièce de résistance comes in its final act, bifurcated into two uncanny and disconcerting episodes that nearly eclipse the grand staging of the avalanche. For everything that this review might spoil on the movie’s groundwork, the finale— and its strange and humorous buildup—will be left to the experience of seeing this story play out, but it’s as if Östlund singlehandedly redefines the notion of resolution. Force majeure is as awkward and tense as any Michael Haneke movie, but its inspired mixture of melodrama, comedy and thriller is completely singular.