Director: Ruben Östlund Cast: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren 120 minutes ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Force Majeure is a subject that carries various connotations. In legal terms, acts of god can liberate participants from a binding contract. Superior forces can be blamed if we cannot meet our responsibilities. In Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure a supreme force materializes as a minor incident. Normally, I’d say to hell with it and reveal the game-changing event, but this wouldn’t do the meatier consequences of the film justice. However, there is much to be said for the elements that surround the film’s climax.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) take their children on a family vacation to Les Arcs ski resort in Savoie, France. The film opens with the family posing for vacation pictures. The kids preen at the cameraman while their parents fail in their efforts to portray intimacy. Ebba may be smiling, but her eyes look far beyond the camera. Scenes like this are scattered throughout the film, but are infused with a tone of imminent doom. The movie is almost scoreless. The tension builds with occasional peripheral bustle and the booms of man made avalanches. The elephants in the room are violently revealed to Vivaldi concertos.
Kongsli is very convincing as a mother on the verge of a breakdown. Her stylish composure becomes shaken in the midst of crisis. She fidgets and punctures the air with exasperated sighs. Ebba’s marriage is fractured and it’s all she can focus on. Meanwhile, Tomas meekly tries to normalize their situation. He looks up at Ebba, pleading with her to let things go, but her lack of cues leaves him relenting and hanging his head in submission. Kuhnke does a great job portraying the guilty party too stubborn to confess to his unforgiving act.
Fredrik Wenzel’s cinematographic lens is admiringly lucid. The camera frames wide expanses around the film’s isolated characters. While the snow and wind sculpt the virgin mountains, the deep valley looks polluted, invaded by the vacationing crowds with their hotel lights piercing the darkness. The landscape looms over the buildings and tiny chalets, making the human inhabitants look more like aliens than earth dwellers. One night scene shows the silhouettes of the surrounding mountains lit up like a Martian landscape as a toy drone shines as it whirs across the sky. Another scene shows a defeated Tomas swarmed by a horde of drunken men at a primal outdoor rave. His sadness is in contrast to the revelers, but its palpable and real.
It’s images like the above that express the complicated workings of relationships and how they reflect on the self. Tomas has exposed a huge wound in their family and in doing so has disrupted the perfect exterior they were trying to paint at the start of the film. While one could see this as a film about disenfranchised people, it’s more about the flaws humanity masks. These faults brim at the surface, but are the true driving force during crises. Small actions (or inactions) may be huge to the psyche of the characters, but to they audience, they’re black comedy. They’re cringe-worthy yet relatable moments. The viewer will nervously laugh, but they will laugh nonetheless.
Östlund has a curious knack for the subtle. His direction makes it look like the camera just happened to be there at the right time. This leads to a smart crosscutting between Tomas and Ebba’s marriage troubles that contrasts with the honeymoon stages of those around them. The director is a veteran of ski movies and in many ways that reflects in the oral and silent visuals that interplay throughout the film. While the pristine background lends itself to awe, the audience will feel compelled to watch the train crashes, and in turn, internalize them.
Force Majeure is a beautiful portrait of disharmony giving the viewer an emotional rollercoaster it will have to work through long after leaving the theatre. Be ready to elucidate your discomfort.
Jacqueline Valencia is a Toronto-based poet and critic. She the author of The Octopus Complex(Lyrical Myrical 2013), the senior staff film critic at Next Projection, and the founding editor of These Girls On Film.