A Swedish family is on vacation in the Swiss Alps. The father, mother, and young daughter and son all appear happy and pose for pictures in front of a snow-capped mountain. They look like an advertisement found in an REI catalog. On day two, they enjoy lunch atop a restaurant balcony overlooking the slopes. Suddenly, an avalanche begins to form. As it grows larger and larger, the patrons gather in front of the ledge to take pictures. But soon the avalanche appears to grow out of control and everyone begins to scream and embrace for impact. Dusty white powder covers the balcony. The mother grabs her children and pulls them under her. The father grabs his iPhone and flees the scene.
This is the crucial episode that sets forth in motion the events of Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure, which despite its premise is not a disaster movie, but instead a subtle, introspective study of what happens when the avalanche fiasco turns out to be a false alarm. The family and all the restaurant patrons emerge from the scene physically unharmed, but for the mother, the emotional damage is irreversible and cannot be easily healed: At the time of crisis, her maternal “fight-or-flight” instincts triggered the immediate reaction of protecting her young children, while her husband’s reaction was self-preservation at all costs.
The father, named Tomas (played by Johannes Kuhnke) doesn’t appear to be selfish or uncaring. And the mother, named Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) initially does not appear to be too disturbed by her husband’s actions (or, perhaps more accurately, non-actions). Östlund photographs Force Majeure mostly in series of long, unbroken static shots so when as viewers we first witness the avalanche, the camera does not pan to Tomas’ fleeing or Ebba’s stunned reactions like it would in a Hollywood film (this may be a scene to rewind and pause several times if viewing the film on DVD). We see the chaos of the event just as the characters do, which proves to be crucial because in order for the emotional complexity of Force Majeure to work, we have to understand both sides of the issue.
In Tomas’s view, he was simply acting on his natural impulse to run to safety, and since the avalanche ultimately ended up benign and everyone ended up safe and unharmed, why dwell on grave hypotheticals? For Ebba, the issue is much more complicated – so complicated, in fact, that she doesn’t even broach it until later that night, while having dinner at the lodge with friends. At first her tone is playful, but perhaps inevitably, it turns to genuine pain and disappointment over his abandonment of her and the children. Now one of the core aspects of marriage is that we are privy to our significant others at their best times as well as their worst (not unlike the famous maxim attributed to Marilyn Monroe, “If you can’t handle met at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”) Ebba and Tomas have undoubtedly witnessed each other at their best and worst moments, and Tomas’s actions during the avalanche would undoubtedly qualify as one of his worst moments (his ensuing self-denial and defense of his actions don’t exactly absolve him, either). But marriage is also about mutual respect and courtesy for one another, and the acknowledgment that no one is perfect and some things are better left withheld from friends and other loved ones.
That being said – while Tomas’s actions may have been indefensible, is it any better that Ebba confronts and embarrasses him about them in front of their mutual friends? Yes, Tomas may be in denial about the severity of the situation (similarly, male audience members may grow impatient with the movie’s near-obsessive focus on the event), but Ebba’s decision to share these details with friends not once but on two separate occasions constitutes a major marriage faux pas. If we are to believe that Tomas truly cares about his wife and children, isn’t it natural to expect that his reaction to her feelings of abandonment would be his own sadness and regret that he couldn’t have acted as a better protector? Isn’t Ebba’s public shaming of her husband unnecessarily cruel? Or is it justified on the grounds that it was Tomas’s own selfish and uncaring behavior that led her to have these feelings in the first place, and a public airing of grievances may be just the stern treatment Tomas deserves?
As you can probably see, Force Majeure is designed to push buttons with viewers (particularly married ones) and make you ask serious questions about your own strengths and inadequacies. It’s so easy to read a book or watch a film about the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement and proclaim that had you been there, you would have sacrificed yourself in the name of justice and Universal Good. Watching Force Majeure, I thought about the first thing I would reach for in the event of a fire at my house (the answer is not my iPhone.) But at the same time, as Tomas -- or someone like Steve Bartman -- essentially tells his friends: You weren’t there, you didn’t see what I saw, and regardless of what you want to believe, had you been there you more likely than not would have done what I did.
Of course, Steve Bartman had the luxury of pulling a Henry Hill and going into hiding, removing himself from the moralistic scowls of casual onlookers and talking heads. Tomas and Ebba have no such luck, and have to endure the rest of their vacation – hell, the rest of their lives – with the knowledge that Tomas acted less than heroically during time of crisis (in this respect, he joins the likes of one George Costanza). How can their marriage, which may have already been fragile to begin with, continue to survive? What’s fascinating about Force Majeure is that Tomas and Ebba both desperately want to forget about the events during the avalanche – this should be Exhibit A in the school of “the less said, the better.” Put another couple into this scenario and maybe they laugh about it over a couple of drinks, or perhaps it’s so insignificant that it’s never even formally brought up. But Tomas and particularly Ebba prove incapable of not talking about it and not thinking about it, and this begins what appears to be a path leading down the road of self-destruction. Like many unhappy married couples, they are the only ones laying the bricks.
There are other characters in Force Majeure. There’s the couple Tomas and Ebba dine with, who go back to their hotel room and naturally begin to question their own actions and inclinations if placed in the same circumstances. There’s a married friend of Ebba’s seeing a much younger man, who informs her that monogamous relationships tend to have the toxic effect of defining an individual’s identity solely in relationship to the man or woman they are attached to. Then there are Tomas and Ebba’s young children, Vera and Harry, who spend most of the vacation distracted by their iPads and yelling at their parents. It’s possible to interpret these kids in a few ways: Their bossiness and aggression (at one point they kick Tomas and Ebba out of the hotel room) demonstrate how they are the products of a dysfunctional marriage. Or maybe it’s just that they’re spoiled. Or maybe they recognize that their parents may be on the brink of divorce and are trying to keep them together in whatever misguided and naïve ways they can. Or maybe they don’t understand anything at all.
Force Majeure is not a perfect movie. At times it is too slow-paced, the supporting characters are underdeveloped, and the final ten minutes feel tacked on and heavy-handed. But Östlund is a masterful provocateur of resuscitating the baggage we want to sweep underneath the rug during a long marriage, and how small, casual moments are capable of revealing deep and profound defects. Even more broadly, the film dares to ask questions about contemporary masculinity and the Tomas’ contested role as the “man as protector,” a socially conservative ideal now considered anachronistic and even politically incorrect today. As George Costanza asks prophetically, “What kind of a topsy-turvy world do we live in where heroes are cast as villains?” The answer is a world where there are no heroes or villains, but only vulnerable husbands and wives whose personal insecurities and feelings of guilt need not necessarily require avalanches to be triggered.
(Note: Force Majeure is Sweden's official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 87th Academy Awards.)
Rating: 3.5 stars