Force Majeure. A superior or irresistible power. An event that is a result of the elements of nature, as opposed to one caused by human behavior.
Force Majeure premiered at Cannes this past May and won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize. Word of the film emanated out from Cannes, in the way that “buzz” starts to happen, over Twitter, through early reviews. Force Majeure opens in the U.S. on October 24 (probably in limited release), and is also Sweden’s official entry as Best Foreign-Language film. I went into the film only knowing that there was an avalanche in it, and that it was a unique version of a “disaster movie”. Some of the reviews I have read since give quite a bit away. It’s not that there’s a secret, or that there are plot-points that need to be protected. But I am quite happy with my experience of going into the movie knowing really nothing about it. So consider that before you read any further (or view the trailer).
A Swedish family (dad Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), mom Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and two kids, Harry and Vera, played by Vincent Wettergren and Clara Wettergren) go on holiday in the Alps. They stay in a nice resort, huddled in the middle of the mountains, peaks rising up all around. Ebba confesses to a friend she runs into at the reception desk, also on a holiday, that they have taken this holiday because Tomas works too much and needs to spend more time with his family.
During lunch on a rooftop cafeteria overlooking the slopes, the family and the other guests eating watch as a spectacular controlled avalanche barrels down towards them. It’s moving fast. People feel safe, they “ooh” and “ahh” and take out their phones to capture the magnificence. But very quickly everyone realizes that the avalanche appears to be coming right towards them. And although they are several stories in the air, the wall of snow coming at them is taller. Panic erupts. The screen goes to white.
And then stays white. We hear the screams, the running feet. We see nothing.
As the event dissipates, as the white disappears, melting into nothingness, providing us with sight again, it becomes apparent that Tomas made a choice, when that avalanche was about to hit. He made a choice that is the impetus for all that follows. It is a choice he denies, vehemently, throughout. Ebba, though, knows what she saw. Her marriage is called into question. Her life choices. And for Tomas, it is an assault on his identity and self-perception that leads him into treacherous psychological waters, an abyss of nothingness, a total obliteration of Self. The two young children are helpless bystanders as they watch their freaked-out parents become aware of the sheer amount of wreckage left in the avalanche’s wake.
Filmed in a formal and omniscient way, with repetitive stunning shots of the slopes, the ski-lifts barreling over the blinding white, the resort seen as a vulnerable block of concrete surrounded by an austere landscape, Force Majeure ends up being a brutal look at concepts of masculinity, heroism, courage, and what all that might mean in a modern world. It also contains the suggestion that modernity could be swept away in a second by a natural disaster, a “force majeure.” Are we ready for it? Tomas works in an office. He is a family man. He is domesticated. That is not necessarily a negative thing. But when a moment occurs where he needs to rise in a more traditional role, he fails. Horribly. The expectations not just from Ebba, but from his fellow male counterparts, stare at him in the face. Leer at him, jeering and mocking.
Ebba can’t “let it go.” Much of Force Majeure (which was also written by Östlund) is made up of long conversational scenes, between Tomas and Ebba and various friends. A couple joins them on vacation. Immediately, Ebba and Tomas tell the story of the avalanche, each one sharing their different versions. They want outside approval for their point of view of what happened. And yet they can’t agree on what happened. These scenes are long, complex, with shots that repeat, metronome-like, so that you realize you are going into a Hall of Mirrors. What is perception? What is identity? Does it exist all on its own, or must it be reflected back to you? What happens when the reflection does not match the desire? The couples who are forced to listen to these varying interpretations, start to weigh in with their own opinions. Tomas and Ebba’s anxiety and trauma start to wear off on others. The fallout is not isolated to one family. It makes the other characters wonder: “Who am I, when push comes to shove? Would I do what Tomas did? Can I even explain Tomas’ actions, or excuse them? How will I be in a moment when heroism is required? Will I fail?” The dialogue is intricate, fascinating. The acting is deep and extremely strange. These are people facing the abysses within. These are people who have never been tested, who have never been forced to look at, really look at, who they are in the world.
The avalanche we see in Force Majeure is a controlled one. Throughout the film, there are constant blasts from speakers placed out on the slopes, to shift the snow so that the skiers will be safe. At first, the characters in Force Majeure are not aware of how bad the psychological damage has been. They think they, too, may be able to control the avalanche. In scene after scene, relentless, sometimes extremely hilarious (believe it or not), Tomas and Ebba realize that the event that has befallen them cannot be controlled. They try. They talk. They plead their case to their friends. They listen to the responses. They go skiing again. They try.
But what was seen cannot be unseen. Their marriage is hurtling at breakneck speed towards a bottomless pit. And, even more frightening, Tomas’ entire sense of self begins to shatter. At first slowly, because he resists. And finally, devastatingly, he can no longer control any of it.
Östlund films this uncontrollable landscape of trauma and fear in an extremely controlled way. Shots repeat. We see things from far off: the resort, the mountains, the horizon. Even the interior of the resort, strangely repetitive, stacked balconies around an open space, is filmed in a way that destabilizes our understanding of what we are seeing. It’s eerie. The effect makes one extremely uneasy. Nobody is a villain. Human beings do not always do their best when push comes to shove. Everyone hopes that in a crisis situation they will be the resourceful one, the one who holds a group together, who has ideas about what to do. Even if we are not conscious of that hope, it’s there. Östlund films some of it as though it is a play: long shots, with people talking. I didn’t have a stopwatch on the length of these shots, but he basically lets these devastating conversations play out, without pushing in close, or editing the heck out of the footage telling us where to look. And so these scenes, with everyone sitting around trying do damage-control from that initial event, start to feel even more frightening than the avalanche we saw. Östlund, and his camera, doesn’t blink.
The physical disaster of the avalanche happens in the first 10 minutes of the film. The emotional disaster that follows, however, is the thing that really spreads, obliterating all in its path.
Force Majeure is one of my favorite films of the year thus far.