Directed by Ruben Östlund
Starring Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli
On general release in the UK from 10 April 2015
Such a grimly authentic account of human weakness is bound to leave all but the most morally superior writhing in embarrassment
Were I to point out just one thing I loved about this film, it would be its nightmarish depiction of French ski resorts. Force Majeure envisages them as more like institutions for the deranged, populated by an unholy mix of intoxicated, bed-hopping singletons, hysterical families and an army of slave-labourers whose fate it is to manicure the slopes, serve drinks and mop up the emotional, physical and psychological debris left by their clients. Shots of people ascending the mountain, skiing and moving around the resort emphasise their solitude, desire to escape and existential misery.
“Force majeure” is a legal term used in clauses that suspend each party’s contractual obligations in exceptional circumstances; in Ruben Östlund’s film the contract in question is a marriage. The film follows what happens when a Swedish couple, Tomas and Ebba (played by Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli), take their two children on holiday to the French Alps. On their second day at the resort, while they are having an alfresco lunch, an avalanche bears down on them. As his wife and children scream at the table, paralysed by fear, Tomas grabs his iPhone and runs to safety, abandoning them. In the event, they are unharmed, but the consequences of his behaviour reverberate through the rest of the film.
While watching Force Majeure, I kept recalling Alice Munro’s remark: “It’s plenty hard to be a man” – a witty understatement from a writer whose stock-in-trade is feckless males. Tomas falls squarely into that unfortunate category. He is exactly like those husbands throughout history who, faced with life-threatening events, abandoned chivalric codes in the interests of their own survival. Apparently, men are more frequently prone than women, in such situations, to trample their nearest and dearest underfoot to save their own skins, so explaining the high divorce rate among couples who survive such experiences. The film takes as its occasion something that happens on a daily basis at most ski resorts – the artificially induced avalanche that, despite appearances, is uncatastrophic. And the film’s makers mine it for all it’s worth.
“Tu vas bien?” someone asks, as the clouds of snow clear away in the wake of the avalanche. At first, Tomas’ wife and children say nothing, eating their lunch in silence. But over the next hours and days, their holiday falls apart as Tomas is forced to accept what he did, and then to confront whatever made him run away.
“You seem irritated,” he tells Ebba when they return to their hotel room.
“Should I be?”
“No.” The first of many lies. He knows why she is unhappy, and that she has every right to be.
Meeting another couple in the bar, Tomas and Ebba give completely different accounts of what happened.
“He got so scared that he ran away from the table,” she says.
“No, I did not,” he retorts.
Eventually, they agree on a watered-down version of the truth that satisfies no one.
But do the film-makers have the courage of their convictions? A man who reveals himself in the way Tomas does is not easy to forgive. Without giving too much away, he embarks on a tour of the weary labyrinth of denial until forced, almost at the limits of sanity, to face up to his weakness.
None of this is easy to watch, in part because Tomas is all too recognisably human. In fact, the film works only if Tomas’ representative status is understood. His capacity for self-deception is boundless: he declines to acknowledge his cowardice until confronted by a film of his actions recorded on his own iPhone. Even then, he prefers to acquiesce in elaborate psychological explanations. This film takes for granted our built-in tendency to judge our worst faults in the most lenient manner: Tomas backs away, again and again, from admitting that he has done anything amiss, and when, finally, he has no choice, declares, “I’m a victim, too, I’m a victim of my own instincts!” Behind the self-pity there is nothing but more self-pity.
This has to be one of the film’s funniest moments, as well as one of its least comfortable – because Tomas is so like us. Such a grimly authentic account of human weakness is bound to leave all but the most morally superior writhing in embarrassment. For that reason, Force Majeure is not entertaining in the usual sense – and may not be the ideal film to see with your wife, husband or children. I’m not sure I would even want to watch it with my dog.
That, too, is an interesting point: Force Majeure may be best viewed tout seul, not only because it is calculated to place us in self-loathing discomfort, but also because it is fundamentally concerned with alienation. It is about the distance between us and those we love. It is also about an alienated society. The people who visit the ski resort are weirdly detached from their surroundings, as if the function of the place is not to reconnect them with nature, but to provide the space in which they can discover terrible things about each other, have arguments and get drunk.
I remember someone who switched boyfriends, changed jobs and moved house so frequently that her friends were prone to ask, “Have you made any life-altering decisions recently?” For most of us, such changes are (thankfully) rare; Force Majeure is a sharply observed drama about the kind of family holiday most likely to precipitate them, and takes us into territory most films prefer to leave untouched. To that end, the film makes good use of the visual possibilities of its location. There are scenes when the whiteness of the snow is depressingly bleak, turning the slopes and peaks into places to hide, have a nervous breakdown or inter oneself. The resort itself provides a horribly totalising experience like a rehab facility or asylum. In short, Force Majeure manhandles us into the badlands of penitence and incarceration.
It is typical of the thoughtfulness of the writing that the film does not neglect the children, who immediately understand the tensions between their parents and react accordingly. “We’re afraid you’re going to divorce,” their eight-year-old son Harry (Vincent Wettergren) tells them. The storytelling and acting are sufficiently credible to make you want to leave the cinema rather than stick around to witness the damage Ebba and Tomas continue to inflict.
In the US, this film is billed as a comedy, perhaps because it contains elements of satire, most obviously in Tomas’ dependence on his phone – which carries evidence of his cowardice. Although it contains scenes that offer a modicum of light relief (in a nausea-inducing way), it would take a viewer of eye-popping insensitivity to laugh out loud at them.
The film forces us to look squarely at Tomas’ flaws, to all of which he confesses, but with little sense of expiation. In that sense, it reminded me of the film Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Ingmar Bergman’s slow-motion portrait of a marriage making its way down the garbage disposal unit. Östlund lacks Bergman’s hypertensive bitterness – and might be criticised for offering his characters a moment of redemptive solidarity as the film draws to its close – but he has given us, in all other respects, a memorable counterirritant to the burbling of much mainstream cinema.