Just in time for my birthday, one of my local arthouses got this, and after a gluttonous Chinese dinner, I led my guests in a Pied-Piper caravan to the theater to see a film which most of them had barely heard of, let alone knew the premise to.
To my delight, most of them disliked it or were confounded by it.
But I loved it. A satire on the absurdity of human nature (which seemingly owes a debt to Buñuel), superbly written, directed, and acted, Force Majeure shows just how ridiculous we are when we argue, or try to justify ourselves, or…just are.
The place is an Alpine ski resort. A Swedish family is on holiday there: father Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), daughter Vera (Clara Wettergren) and son Harry (Vincent Wettergren). Tomas, we learn, has been too much involved in his work, and this is an opportunity for him to really be a father. The trip initially proceeds uneventfully, but one day the family lunches on a balcony, and a controlled avalanche they observe seemingly goes out of control and heads right for them, and Tomas abruptly runs off, leaving Ebba and the children to be enveloped in a cloud of white.
It turns out that they are unhurt and the avalanche did no damage, but Ebba is upset by Tomas’ actions, and even more so by his denial of them and dismissive attitude toward her concerns. A rift begins to develop, and when Ebba insists on presenting evidence of Tomas’ escape to another couple, Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and Fanni (Fanni Metelius), Tomas breaks down and admits his failures as a father and a husband. Eventually they leave together, and as they descend from the mountains on a bus, the driver’s incompetence has the passengers fearing for their safety, and Ebba demands to be let off; Tomas and the children follow. The film ends with the passengers walking down the road as night begins to fall.
Absurdity, in many forms, is the name of the game in Force Majeure, and the clever use of sound effects does much to enhance that (kudos to mixer-editors Andreas Franck and Gisle Tveito); in the opening moments of the film, a family portrait of our protagonists is taken, and the photographer encourages Tomas and Ebba to move closer and closer together until their ski helmets touch; the hollow clunk of their helmets touching would make Tati proud.
Or take the repetitive thumping clank of the ski lifts, or the droning buzz of the family’s electric toothbrushes. By taking these sounds and forcing us to listen to them, the film achieves an effect not unlike when you focus too intently on a single word, and the word itself begins to seem strange, even ridiculous, yet these are the words we have agreed upon as our means of communication, as the definitive identifiers of things. But listen to that unearthly drone which lets us clean our teeth a modicum faster, listen to that clankity-clank which sends holidaymakers up a hill so they can go down it. It’s all just a bit crazy if you really think about it. What writer-director Ruben Östlund is doing here is revealing the shared delusion at the root of society.
Östlund explores this in other ways, none more distressingly acute than the scene where Ebba and Tomas argue over what exactly happened during the avalanche, and Ebba, trying to ease the tension, says that she just wants “to agree on a version of events”, as if the truth could be determined by compromise:
And when the truth is more or less forced out, there is still more absurdity; Tomas, looking utterly humiliated, breaks down in front of Ebba, who claims he isn’t even crying real tears–and he pulls his hands away from his face to reveal that it is indeed dry. His anguish seems to be genuine, but it is too ridiculous to merit tears.
The delusional nature of masculinity is skewered throughout. Tomas is naturally the butt of much of this, but Mats–an experienced outdoorsman with a beard that can only be described as profound–becomes an apt target as well. Mulling over Tomas and Ebba’s issue, Fanni wonders what Mats would do in such a situation, or how she would react, and her doubt keeps Mats up all night, obsessing over how she could even question his steadfastness (she just wants to go to sleep); she also points out that he has an ex-wife and children, yet is on vacation with her (and she is much younger than him), showing that he has already been somewhat less than an exemplary man.
There’s a scene later on where Mats and Tomas sit in the sun drinking beer, and a girl approaches them, telling Tomas that her friend finds him attractive; he and Mats bask in their self-satisfaction for a beat before she returns and tells him her friend meant someone else. The friend then arrives and apologizes as well, and the profound yet understated awkwardness of the moment is hysterical.
Other absurd elements come from Vera and Harry’s toy helicopter (which we first see buzzing around over the resort in long shot, looking for all the world like a UFO), and from the janitor (don’t know the actor’s name) who introduces a little class conflict into the film; a laconic observer of the bourgeois vacationers’ strife, he provides the necessary maintenance for their escapism, while they regard him as a nuisance (at one point Tomas and Ebba shoo him away while they are having a spat in the hallway).
Yet, for the all the dark humor, there’s a very solid emotional core to Force Majeure, which creeps out amidst all the madness like sunlight filtering through leaves. Harry and Vera are exasperated by Tomas and Ebba’s fighting, seemingly more than Tomas’ temporary abandonment; after Tomas’ big breakdown, Harry and Vera cling to him, urging Ebba to join them, to cast aside the feud that they may come together as a family. And the thing is, they ultimately do. First during a sequence when they try to ski down a mountain which is dangerously foggy; Ebba falls and is briefly lost, and Tomas must leave the children behind while he finds her, but find her he does, and this moment (rather harrowing when it happens) helps cement their reconciliation.
Ebba’s departure from the bus I see as a parallel (though not necessarily an equivalent) of Tomas’ flight in the face of the avalanche; the circumstances are different, and the risk less severe, yet I cannot help but think Östlund meant us to compare them. And Tomas, before his crisis of conscience, might well have equated her actions with his, and acted like the petulant child he was. Instead, he and the children follow her off, and there is no rebuke, no argument, nor any comparison made. In the film’s final moments, as the passengers head down the road (shades of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, perhaps?), and tired children are carried and cigarettes are exchanged, there’s a welcome sense of community, and that, with the acceptance of Ebba’s own flight from the bus, shows the capacity for humanity to learn, to forgive, and to grow. It’s a comforting ending after so much strife.
Östlund’s direction and writing are superb; the film manages to be dryly, almost deadpannishly funny, without diminishing the film’s essential resonance. At almost two hours, it does have slow spots, but when there’s so much to chew on, it’s forgivable. Fredrik Wenzel’s gorgeous cinematography captures the chilly, sometimes surreal beauty of the Alps (and here, the surreality is put to good use); Vivaldi’s “Summer” (from The Four Seasons) is put to good use on the soundtrack.
Kuhnke, who in manner and tone reminds me of Jason Sudeikis (if, God forbid, this were remade by Hollywood, he’d be a fine choice for the role), is perfect as the fatuous Tomas, walking a fine line between his undeniable obnoxiousness and the shreds of decency which ultimately come through more fully at the end.
As Ebba, Kongsli is equally good, evoking the intense emotional pressure Ebba is under (and when you think about it, being treated thus by one’s spouse–especially with the overtone of male privilege–is well-nigh intolerable) and her attempts to maintain her dignity in the face of it. A lesser film might have sympathized with Tomas and made Ebba a termagant (as I fear a Hollywoodization of the material would do), but here the toll masculine self-delusion takes on women is not overlooked.
The Wettergrens are both quite adequate; Hivju is quite funny in his own absurd way, and Metelius is likewise so clearly the more mature of the two, despite the age gap.
Force Majeure, despite the specificities of its setting and language (though there’s a decent amount of English dialogue), ultimately tackles a universal theme in unraveling the lies we tell ourselves and each other, essentially so we can call ourselves grown-ups, and the catastrophic results of those lies being challenged. If it weren’t so funny, it’d be a genuine tragedy.