Force Majeure (2014)

01/10/2015  By  Joseph Wade     Comments Off

We’d all like to think that we would act selflessly in a moment of crisis. We tell ourselves we’d do anything for family, friends or even complete strangers, but when it comes right down to it, saying and doing are very different things. That idea lies at the heart of Force Majeure, written and directed by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, and one of the most visually striking dramas to come along in quite some time.

Force Majeure follows a young family on a five-day vacation to a ski resort in the French Alps. Early into the trip, the family has their lunch interrupted by a controlled avalanche. The avalanche quickly becomes enormous and threatens to engulf the balcony on which they’re currently sitting. While mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) shields her two children from the snow, their father, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) grabs his iPhone and frantically flees the scene. The avalanche turns out to be little more than a cloud, but Tomas’ actions speak for themselves. When recounting the event to friends and fellow vacationers, he and Ebba recall it in drastically different ways. That seed of doubt takes root, and soon threatens to destroy the entire family.

Another film might build the avalanche into a piece of spectacle (and Östlund certainly has the visual chops to pull that off if he wanted). Force Majeure takes a different approach and focuses squarely on the aftermath. Ebba’s growing distrust in her husband leads her to contemplate leaving him, meanwhile Tomas’ lingering shame eats away at him until he’s writhing on the floor of their hotel room in a fit of hysterics. Kuhnke and Kongsli create a palpable tension between husband and wife, and as that tension builds, so too does our connection to them.

Kuhnke, especially, brings a fantastic performance as a father desperately trying to maintain a stoic facade. In the scenes immediately following the avalanche, it’s perfectly obvious that both Tomas and Ebbe are still rattled. Even as he explains his version of the story, Tomas can’t keep himself from shaking. What’s so wonderful about these characters is how much the film manages to convey through minimal exposition and an emphasis on physical performance. Tomas’ body language tells us everything we need to know about his state of mind, and in a film where characters spend most of their time bundled up in ski gear, that’s doubly impressive.

Happens all the time. Consult your travel agent.

And as we get to know Tomas and his family, the film treats us to some truly breathtaking vistas. Östlund’s background as a ski videographer serves the film well, as his camera glides across the slopes with remarkable fluidity. What could easily have become a nightmare of shakycam skiing instead provides us a rock-steady image of lifelong skiers doing what they do best. Half of the film nearly plays like a travelogue for the French Alps, full of gorgeous vistas and skiiers taking to the slopes.

Force Majeure’s real triumph comes in the way it examines our most primal instincts. As Tomas’ friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) explains, our fight-or-flight response is the only thing keeping our species alive. There’s no way to tell how our instincts will cause us to act, but he argues we shouldn’t judge Tomas too harshly for his moment of weakness. This, too, is easier said than done. After all, it’s perfectly obvious what Tomas did and if that’s how he reacted once, it stands to reason he’ll do it again.

The threat of another incident hangs over the rest of the film. At times, it feels very reminiscent of Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, particularly in its foreshadowing of another impending calamity. We witness a number of controlled avalanches, like the one kicking off this story, and Force Majeure almost playfully lingers on these shots. Even though the film largely plays things straight, it’s hard not to think Ruben Östlund is leading us on here. He plants the seeds of doom early, and then taunts us as we expect them to blossom into full-blown disaster at any moment. That his film still manages to end on an unexpected note is something of a minor miracle.

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Screenplay
Kongsli & Kuhnke
Cinematography
The Looming Threat of Disaster
A Hilariously Bizarre Rave Sequence

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Joseph Wade is secretly three bulldogs in a trenchcoat. Their favorite movie is Turner & Hooch.