Human nature is tested by circumstance in the intriguing ‘Force Majeure’
The French title of the Swedish film Force Majeure literally means “superior force,” as in a force of nature, or what we might call an act of God. It generally refers to an unexpected circumstance completely beyond human control, most often a natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami. But it’s used ironically in this cerebral thriller, where the drama hinges not on a natural disaster, but the split-second response of oh-so-fallible humans in its path.
Directed by Ruben Östlund, and already Sweden’s official Foreign Language entry for the 2015 Academy Awards, the film tells a simple-seeming story about a young family on a skiing vacation in the French Alps. The father, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), works too hard, as his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) tells another tourist at their swanky resort hotel, high in the snowy mountains. So they’ve packed up their two young children, Vera and little Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) for five days of relaxation and family time.
All goes well the first day; the kids are happy enough to forego their tablet and phone games to tromp around in the snow, and the family begins to unwind together. On the second day, while the family is having lunch on the restaurant balcony, overlooking a spectacular view, the snowpack on the nearest mountain begins to move. Tomas assures them all not to worry, it’s a “controlled” avalanche. (And what does it say about our times and priorities that, in the face of a potential avalanche, controlled or otherwise, the first thing people do is whip out their phones and take pictures?)
In a brilliant sequence, the viewers (like the characters) experience complete white-out onscreen for a couple of minutes in real time, when nothing can be seen, and all that can be heard are distant, random voices. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that the resort is not entirely engulfed, and the movie continues on from this point. But damage that may prove to be irreparable has been done to Tomas and Ebba’s family unit, and to their relationship.
Over the next couple of days, first Ebba, then Tomas, go off on solo ski runs apart from the rest of the family. Ebba starts drinking too much in the evenings and telling her version of what happened to anyone who will listen, sowing discomfort among their new acquaintances. At first, Tomas disagrees with her opinion, then he sullenly refuses to respond at all. The children get so fed up they shout their parents out of their hotel suite one night.
But while some viewers will find it irritating that the movie, like Ebba, keeps getting stuck on this one point and won’t move on, there’s a lot more happening here than you might think. Filmmaker Östlund’s design is fascinating in the way Ebba’s story soon becomes a litmus test for gender, family, and even age issues among all who hear it, including the audience. It may surprise you how the person sitting next to you perceives events in the film. It certainly causes exponential aftershocks between a couple of Tomas and Ebba’s friends who join them on holiday (Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius). While he tries to play peacemaker and put the incident into philosophical perspective, his much-younger girlfriend, teasingly but acutely calls him out on his self-deluding stance; if his first priority is family, she says, “why are your kids with your ex, and you’re here with a 20-year-old?”
Meanwhile, Östlund amps up the sense of eerie intensity with long, panoramic shots of the implacable mountains at night, or at dawn. These are often accompanied by muted, yet unsettling booms, chugging snowplow engines, and hissing steam, the sounds of puny man made technology determined to impose order on wild nature. If only human nature were as easy to control.
An interlude with Tomas drinking and shrieking in the bar with a bunch of party animals is fairly pointless, considering how long it goes on. And I didn’t buy a sequence when a tour bus strands its cargo of tourists by the roadside. But overall, it’s a provocative story with a neat, twisty finale that suggests no one is immune to human frailty.
FORCE MAJEURE *** (out of four) With Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, and Kristofer Hivju. Written and directed by Ruben Östlund. A Magnolia release. Rated R. 118 minutes. In Swedish with English subtitles.