If you’ve ever wondered, as I often have, how you’d react in a crisis situation (you’re with your family on a ship that’s sinking, or in a store that’s being robbed at gun point, or trying to get out of the way of a tidal wave – or an avalanche), then you should see Force Majeure, an extraordinary Swedish film written and directed by Rueben Östlund that puts a nasty spin on that question.
In films I always want to identify with characters who stand up and do the right thing, usually at great emotional, professional, or (especially) physical risk to themselves. Many movies are built on this dynamic and depend on audiences identifying with these characters. Gary Cooper coming back to town to face the men who’ve come to kill him in High Noon when it would be easier to turn away, for example. Force Majeure, however, confronts us with a lead character who doesn’t do the right thing, who briefly abandons his wife and two kids in a moment of panic and later denies that it happened at all. Not much of a role model, not much to admire, and not someone you’d want to identify with.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Konglsi), and their two children Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara Wettergren & Vincent Wettergren) have come from Sweden to a resort in the French Alps for five days of skiing and relaxation. It’s stated that Tomas spends so much time at work that he has very little time for his children. This is a chance to be together. They seem quite ordinary, nothing out of place, an Ikea family. The first day is pleasant and goes smoothly; they ski together, they all nap on the bed (a great shot that’s held for a long time), and in a scene that’s repeated several times during the film and feels increasingly unsettling, we see them standing side by side reflected in the bathroom mirror as they brush their teeth with electric toothbrushes.
On the second day they are eating breakfast outside on a terrace facing the mountains (actually, every view from this resort seems to face mountains). Since the start of the film we’ve been hearing sporadic booms that sound like cannon fire. I couldn’t figure this out at first, but then found out it has to do with deliberately creating avalanches as a way of preventing large, dangerous avalanches (or something like that). These random booms throughout the film add to a sense of unease. As the family eats, they see a “controlled” avalanche start down the mountain. Tomas says not to worry, this is perfectly okay. But as the billowing snow advances closer and closer, the situation suddenly doesn’t seem quite so safe. People definitely rush to get out of there, but Tomas bolts, knocking someone aside to clear the way, leaving his wife and children at the table. The frame whites out from the snow and stays that way for what feels like a long time as we hear sounds and voices. People and objects slowly emerge, first as shapes and shadows, then more recognizably as the snow settles. There have been no cuts and the camera hasn’t moved an inch during this entire scene.
That night Tomas and Ebba are eating dinner with a couple they’d met earlier. Ebba starts talking about the avalanche that almost got them at breakfast. With a kind of chagrined laugh she says that Tomas ran away and left them, which he immediately and emphatically says never happened. This denial seems actually worse than his running away in the first place. He keeps it up even when he and Ebba are alone together.
Force Majeure raises issues about what it means to “be brave” and “be a man,” and challenges those concepts in the process. In press notes for the film, the director writes that inspiration for the film came from researching “…true stories of distress and emergency, of passengers during the sinking of ships, of tourists stricken by tsunamis or held hostage by hijackers. In such extreme situations, people can react in completely unexpected and exceedingly selfish ways… It also appears that, in many cases, men do not act according to the expected codes of chivalry. In life or death situations, when their own survival is at stake, it seems that men are even more likely than women to run away and save themselves…” This is uncomfortable information for us guys, though women will probably just nod their heads in agreement.
The concept of masculinity is also examined in a very funny, off-kilter scene in which Tomas and a friend of his, Mats (Kristofer Hivju), are seated outdoors drinking beer after skiing. A woman comes over and tells Tomas that her friend (a woman we don’t see) has pointed out Tomas and Mats as being the most attractive men there. She returns a moment later to say sorry, her friend didn’t mean them, she had pointed at someone else. There’s something about this scene that just seems so odd and so deadpan. Like so many scenes in the film, this plays out in a single camera setup, with no cuts to distract as Tomas’ and Mats’ egos are puffed up and then deflated in rapid order. (The actor playing Mats looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I’d seen him. It turns out he plays a Wildling leader, Tormund Giantsbane [that’s some name], on HBO’s Game of Thrones.)
Force Majeure is impeccably made. The images have a clarity that’s stunning at times. Scenes often play out in silence, or with pauses (often uncomfortable) and looks that are quite revealing without spelling things out. The following scene takes place on the night of the third day when Mats and his much younger girlfriend Fanni are having dinner in Tomas and Ebba’s suite. Ebba again returns to Tomas’ actions of the day before.
This is a very unusual film with an almost clinically objective eye. I liked it a lot. Original and provocative, Force Majeure is a sharp-edged satire that wraps up in a way that makes us rethink much of what’s transpired, and suggests that the issues may not have been as clear-cut as they originally seemed.
Force Majeure won a prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and is Sweden’s 2014 official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film. After playing the international and domestic festival circuit earlier this year, it opens theatrically in this country on Friday, October 24th. – Ted Hicks
*** Since posting this review yesterday, I read an interview with Rueben Östlund in the October 19th New York Times. If you’re interested in the film, this is definitely worth checking out.