Force Majeure refers to a French legal term that loosely translates as “an act of God” for insurance purposes; an event that cannot be predicted and therefore meaning that neither party is to blame. But blame and responsibility is exactly what the film seeks to address in an often uncomfortable, frequently funny and always compelling story.
On a skiing holiday Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are having a lovely time with their two children. But sitting outside enjoying a meal high up a mountain they see an avalanche thundering towards them. In an act of instinct Tomas flees the scene leaving Ebba and the children to fend for themselves. The avalanche passing without any damage, the family soon find themselves facing a fallout all of their own making as Ebba begins to question her husband’s loyalty to his family and Tomas begins to ask himself if he is the man he thought he was.
Fairy tales, and by proxy cinema, have attuned us to see protagonists a certain way. As people who run towards danger to help others. But life is more complicated than what Indiana Jones might be capable of. And therein lies Force Majeure’s brilliance; that put in the same situation writer director Ruben Östlund defies us to, without doubt, guarantee we would behave any differently. We’d all like to believe we’re heroic, because we see it so often in fiction, but until you experience it you have no idea which instinct is going to kick in first; fight or flight.
Östlund smartly juxtaposes all the character drama with visuals of the Alp Mountains being constantly tamed to facilitate man’s need for leisure activities. But like man nature is a beast all of its own that cannot be contolled. Throughout the film there are constant reminders that allow a wry smile to creep across your face. Östlund’s camera often intrudes to the point of voyeurism on Tomas and Ebba. They become a spectacle to both us and even one of the hotel cleaners who quietly watches as this couple bicker, fight, make-up and everything else in between. Some of the most powerful scenes take place in the bathroom as Tomas and Ebba go about their most intimate of tasks. Never have scenes of teeth brushing conveyed so much angst, emotion and betrayal.
These scenes alone are enough to give accolades to Kuhnke and Kongsli for their performances. Kuhnke early on has a stubborn denial of the events before being forced to see himself for what he really is. Kongsli on the other hand is at first resolute that nothing is really wrong but watching her façade first drop and then shatter is as powerful as watching the snow careen down the mountainside.
If there is a flaw it is that Östlund does not seem to have confidence in either his own visual prowess or perhaps his audience’s intelligence. A sub-plot involving Tomas’ friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his young girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius) articulates many of the ideas that are otherwise sub textual and therefore endlessly more powerful. The climax also seems to hint at a character shift that would have been better left implied rather than overtly stated.
A brilliantly subversive and provocative film, Force Majeure is a tour-de-force.