Directed by: Ruben Östlund.
Written by: Ruben Östlund.
Starring: Johannes Kuhnke (Tomas), Lisa Loven Kongsli (Ebba), Clara Wettergren (Vera), Vincent Wettergren (Harry), Kristofer Hivju (Mats), Fanni Metelius (Fanni).
We all like to think that we know what we would do in an emergency – especially when it comes to protecting our family. But the reality is no one really does know what they would do until they are actually faced with that situation. Ruben Ostlund’s brilliant dark comedy Force Majeure will likely rival Gone Girl for the movie that causes the most fights from couples after seeing the movie.
When the film starts, Tomas (Johanne Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) seem like the perfect, upper class couple. The Swedish couple, along with their two perfect looking children, have travelled to an upscale ski resort in the French Alps. The movie opens with them one top of the mountain posing for a series of beautiful snapshots – when we see the pictures later, they almost look like the type that would come with the frame when you buy it. A little later, the family is seen sleeping on a large bed together – perfectly at rest and peaceful. Who wouldn’t want to be them?
Then, on the second day of their five day trip, something happens that throws their idyllic, unexamined life into chaos. While dining at a mountain restaurant, they witness a controlled avalanche, that comes roaring towards them – getting so close it looks like they are all about to be buried. Ebba screams for her husband, the children scream for daddy – and Tomas grabs his iPhone and runs for cover by himself. A few minutes later when it’s clear that there never was any danger, he comes back and the family act as if nothing happened. But something has ruptured in their relationship – and Ebba begins to obsess on it, the children start to worry about the state of their parents’ marriage, and Tomas tries to brush the whole thing off. Ostlund then introduces another couple – another middle aged man, this one divorced, and on vacation with his 20 year old girlfriend. The man is an old friend of Tomas’, and they argue long into the night after the centerpiece center of Force Majeure – where Ebba explains what happened, and how it made her feel. This other couple are almost audience surrogates – not because they are our way into the movie, but because like them, many audience members will argue about what they would do in the same situation.
Force Majeure plays almost like a slightly kinder, much funnier Michael Haneke film. Like in a Haneke film, Ostlund is punishing an upper class couple who when the movie begins are in blissful ignorance, and do very little examination of their own lives. But unlike Haneke, Ostlund doesn’t really hold them into contempt, but rather sees their wealth as just a way they have insolated themselves from reality – something they can no longer do once Tomas reveals that when the chips are down, he’ll rescue his iPhone, and leave his wife and kids to fend for themselves.
Force Majeure is about class – in a way – but it’s more about gender roles, and how both men and women struggle to live up to what they are “supposed” to do. Tomas denies his action for as long as he can – because he doesn’t really want to admit that he is a coward, that has now been clearly proven. He’s supposed to be manly and a protector – and he’s failed at that. And yet, he never truly regrets it either. We have other scenes where his masculinity is flattered, then shattered, and when he finally breaks down and asks for forgiveness, it’s not the redemption we are expecting – but simply makes him more pathetic. He isn’t really sorry – he’s playing the role of a man who is sorry.
And Ebba is equally fascinating as she tries, desperately, to cling to the idea of a life that she has – and lashes out at those around her that challenge it – a tense scene with a fellow middle aged, married mother who has an open relationship that angers Ebba for instance. When Tomas eventually does break down, she is the most resistant to forgive – their kids jump in immediately, but she has to be dragged.
Many movies would have ended on that scene – and to be fair, perhaps Force Majeure should have ended there as well. But this movie takes it a little farther than that – and has two set pieces that gives the film an appropriately ambiguous ending. In the film, this couple wants to come back together – and on the surface, they do just that. But something is broken between these two – and it’s not going to be that easy.