Movie Review: Force Majeure (2014)
I was surprised that the avalanche occurs 12 minutes in. Then there’s the silent accusations that become vocal during a squirmingly awful dinner with another couple. That takes us 30 minutes in. The movie, I knew, verged on two hours. I looked over at Patricia, stricken, hand on my chest, and said, “I can’t believe this goes on for 90 more minutes.”
But it does. “Force Majeure” may be the most uncomfortable comedy I’ve seen.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), is the young, handsome patriarch of a photogenic Swedish family on a ski vacation in France. But he recalls Richard Nixon in this way: It’s less his crime than his cover-up.
After skiing one morning, the family is having lunch on a picturesque veranda when they hear the muffled explosion of a controlled avalanche. Then they see the snow coming toward them. Everyone stands, oos and ahs, and takes pictures and videos. Tomas does this, too, even as his youngest, Harry (Vincent Wettergren), struggles to get away. But the father assures him it’s alright. Until, that is, this monster of white all but envelops them, and Tomas flees. That’s his crime. He leaves his wife and children behind on the veranda.
In that split-second, their lives are irrevocably changed.
The avalanche turns out to be a ghost avalanche, a snow cloud, and as it dissipates the sky turns blue again. But the skies aren’t really blue again.
It’s the kids who silently accuse Tomas first. Nothing is said, but they act bratty with both parents and kick them out of their hotel room.
Then it’s Tomas’ wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli). They’re having dinner with Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg), a Swedish free spirit, and her ski-lodge pickup, a wide-eyed American (Brady Corbet). Tomas acts the patriarch: he noses the wine, nods approval to the unseen waiter, they talk about their day. It’s all rather dull business until Ebba mentions the avalanche, and Tomas running away from the avalanche. Tomas denies it. Except it’s a weak denial. It’s not angry—as it should be, since he’s being accused of cowardice—it just hangs there awkwardly.
The poet John Berryman once said that the problem with modern society is that a man can live his entire life without knowing whether or not he was a coward. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s certainly no longer true for Tomas. He knows. So why doesn’t he admit it? Because it’s about the worst thing you can admit. So he acts like Nixon; he covers up. It’s his second cowardly act, and, in a way, the more unforgivable one.
Ebba, like a one-woman Woodward and Bernstein, tries to break through, but she only works up the courage when they’ve been drinking with other couples. First there was Charlotte; the next night it’s Tomas’ heavily bearded friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju of “Game of Thrones” and “Kraftidioten”), dallying at the resort with his young girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius). Initially I thought Mats would represent the strong, “natural” man to Tomas’ cowardly, “civilized” man, but thank God no. Instead, Mats plays the awkward diplomat:
I believe that the ‘enemy’ is the image we have of heroes. All those stories about heroes. And the pressure to be a hero and do heroic acts in terrible situations. ... Very few of us are heroic.
Ebba listens, then plays the trump card—the video Tomas was taking as he ran away. It’s played; and Tomas is revealed to himself and to the world.
A shell of a man
That’s the uncomfortable. Where’s the comedy?
Here, for example. On the way back to their room, Mats and Fanni have the following conversation:
Fanni: I wonder how I would react if you had done that to me.
Fanni: You might have run, too, and left your kids behind.
Mats: You might also have run.
Fanni: We’re talking about you and Tomas.
Mats: [Odd noise]
Fanni: Because I think I would react like Ebba: I wouldn’t be able to run.
Is Fanni overidentifying? Does she not know what she’s accusing him of? Is she just young? She gets hers, though. Mats keeps her up for hours trying to prove the negative she dumped into his lap.
If Fanni regrets her bizarre accusation, Ebba comes to regret her sleuthing. Tomas was a shell of a man, and she broke through that shell, but it turns out it was the only thing holding him up. The next day, he all but melts into a puddle. He cries with Mats, locks himself out of his room, wanders around the hotel. At the ski “bar,” a girl tells him that her friend thinks he’s the best-looking guy in the place, and he has seconds to bask in this thought before she returns to tell him, in essence, “Whoops, she meant another guy.” When he finally gets into the room again, with his wife and kids around, he goes into another crying jag, and all gather around to comfort him.
The next day, their last day at the lodge, visibility is slight but the family goes skiing anyway. You’re thinking, “Disaster.” You’re right. Ebba gets left behind, and Tomas trudges after her, calling her name. The camera stays with the kids. Time passes. They plop to the ground. They call out for mother and father. We see their point of view. It’s all white.
For a second, I thought the movie would end there. It wouldn’t have been a bad end, to be honest.
Instead, triumphantly, through the white, we see Tomas carrying Ebba. He smiles, exhales; she walks away. Why was he carrying her if she could walk? Because the whole thing was staged by Ebba? Either to test Tomas (would he try to rescue her now?) or to prop him back up? I assume so. And I assume the latter reason. She broke through his façade to this quivering jelly of a man, and he was so unpalatable, and so much work, that she created a situation where he could be whole again. And they could be a family again.
The image of heroes
The atmosphere of “Force Majeure,” written and directed by Ruben Östlund, is distant, cold, spooky. It’s the modern, mechanized society Berryman alludes to. All of their needs are met but no one is really present. We only see two employees and both are silent and incompetent. Otherwise, everything is just there and vaguely menacing: the booms of the controlled avalanches; the creaking of the ski lifts. And it’s not just the ski resort. One of my favorite shots, which Östlund keeps returning to, is the family waiting through their electric toothbrush routine. No brushing is actually involved. They’re all just waiting for the mechanism to finish its task. Its task is us.
What do you make of the end? The family, vaguely whole again, is taking the resort bus down the winding narrow mountain roads; but the busdriver is an incompetent who can’t handle the sharp turns. He freaks out Ebba, who demands an exit, and everyone gets out except for Charlotte, the self-satisfied free spirit, and the bus continues on its way. The crowd looks around, wondering what to do. I suppose you could say they’ve left the mechanism and they’re not sure what to do. Then they do. They walk down the mountain.
Are they free now? Hardly. Tomas first rejects, then accepts, a cigarette from a fellow walker. He leads the way—with his heavy boots, aviator shades, and cigarette dangling from his mouth. He’s the image we have of heroes.