Force Majeure (2014)
Written & Directed by Ruben Östlund
Tomas, his wife Ebba, and their two children are on a skiing vacation at a luxury resort in the French Alps. While eating lunch on the deck of a restaurant, they witness a controlled avalanche that suddenly becomes much scarier and looks to threaten their safety. Tomas runs leaving his family behind, but the incident turns out not to be dangerous. The rest of their trip is plagued by the fact that the patriarch abandoned his family in the face of potential death. This is exacerbated when Tomas’ old buddy Mats shows up with his much younger girlfriend, Fanni. Mats tries to defend his pal, but that creates friction in his and Fanni’s relationship. The two men suddenly find themselves questioning their masculinity and place as the “heads of their families.”
Force Majeure is a sharp, dry comedy reminiscent of recent gem Toni Erdmann. Both movies are hilarious but require the audience to deeply engage before the humor begins to surface, often out of devastatingly awkward social exchanges. Director Ruben Östlund is out to dissect the disaffected nature of the bourgeoisie. We’ve all been in or seen those families that when a sudden truth is set out before them, an uncomfortable reality, they attempt to force themselves past the moment. There’s an unspoken belief that if we do not acknowledge this dissonance, then it will go away. The moments after Tomas dashes off and then returns to continue lunch with his family have no relevant dialogue to the characters’ inner emotions. The father attempts to belie the tension by diminishing the seriousness, but you can tell through both the mother and children’s body language in this scene and the next that the damage has been done.
What Östlund does best is to remove his judgment from what happens on the screen and allows the characters to present arguments and counters to each other. Through the exchanges, the audience will find its sentiments flowing back and forth between parties. There’s no ultimate truth to what happened on that deck just different interpretations of what the expectations of Tomas were. Mats argues to Ebba that Tomas’ actions were merely a primitive instinct to survive kicking in. Makes sense. Later, Mats girlfriend points out how ironic she finds his defense, because he’s virtually abandoned his children to his ex-wife and runs off when much younger women.
Throughout the film, Tomas and Ebba encounter people from other cultures and interact in uncomfortable ways. A French hotel worker becomes a passive onlooker when the couple escapes to the hallway outside their room for numerous disputes, lest the children overhear. One of Ebba’s friends is in an open marriage and comes to dinner with an American man (mirroring Mats’ much younger paramour). There’s some conversation about the man being “deeply religious” to which he attempts to clarify by restating all he said was he “wasn’t an atheist.” When Ebba starts to retell the story about the avalanche, she and Tomas find themselves slipping into Swedish to argue which leaves the American sitting there, unsure if he should keep smiling and laughing or if the tone has shifted.
You’re going to think of Michael Haneke while watching this, and I was reminded of his most recent picture Happy End. Östlund is out to break down and satirize the male ego, looking at how pathetic Tomas becomes to reclaim his masculinity. This takes the form of trekking up to a rocky peak to ski with Mats and breaking down in tears and manipulating his young children into chastizing his wife for not comforting him. A moment, in the end, is left up for questioning, where one person becomes lost, and another rescues them. It’s impossible to read this scene as a real happenstance event, but more performance of heroism meant to seal up the wounds so that characters can move on already. However, it seems clear that this couple will never move past the avalanche.