In Force Majeure, as in 2011’s The Loneliest Planet, something traumatic happens that only takes an instant. But what happens in that unthinking blink of time changes everything between the people who live through it.
Talk about an Avalanche
A Swedish family — Tomas, Ebba, and their two pre-teen children — go skiing at a mountain resort. After a nice day and a half on the slopes, they sit down for lunch at the mountaintop bistro and watch one of the controlled avalanches roll toward them. As it gets bigger and closer, it seems that the avalanche isn’t so controlled after all....
R for some language and brief nudity
Everyone survives, but the different reactions of the husband and wife to their potential doom create a world of friction in the family.
Two later conversations allow director Ruben Östlund (director of Movie Habit favorite Play) to chew on the situation. First is a dinner with some new friends. When Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) casually brings up the avalanche from earlier that day, it’s the first time anyone has actually spoken about it. She and Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) quickly realize that they saw things completely differently.
In a sense, Tomas’ masculinity is called into question. While that may not be pleasant for him, there’s no real damage done. Yet Force Majeure shows how some little annoyance like that can get under the skin and fester. Everyone involved wants to just drop it, but nobody can seem to let it go.
The second conversation takes place later; it’s over a home-cooked meal with an old friend, Mats (Kristofer Hivju, a big red-headed Santa Claus), and his new young girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius). The subject comes up yet again and Mats and Fanny look on helplessly. At some point social graces require Mats to step in and try to defend Tomas, which compels Fanny to take Ebba’s side. They end up having their own mini-fight later that night.
Östlund’s style is to let scenes and takes run long, past the point of awkwardness. Tension and discomfort build the longer his characters and the audience are trapped in an odd scene. You get a sense that Östlund is in complete control, and he’s not necessarily going to be kind. It’s a sort of like a thrill ride; you trust that those who built it know how to scare you without actually endangering you.
One cinematic trick (carried out by cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel) that I almost didn’t notice involves digitally erasing a camera looking squarely into a mirror. Why bother? Probably because it puts you right in the middle of the tension. And surely the unnatural impossibility of the shot puts you on edge.
The sound design helps to keep you tense as well. Throughout the film there are avalanche cannons going off, and Vivaldi’s energetic Summer Presto takes you rushing up to the edge of a cliff face.
Back from Contempt
Force Majeure feels a little long, at 118 minutes. A later revelation makes Tomas look even worse. Our sympathy for him changes to pity, frustration, and eventually contempt. “Contempt” is a hard place to recover from. Still, the ending gives him a glimmer of his manhood back, if not his dignity, amidst an even stranger development that may overshadow the “avalanche incident” in the family’s future memories of the ski trip.
Force Majeure is insightful, if not completely original. It can be a little slow at times. It can also be funny — sometimes deliberately. It’s shows how little fights become big fights, and how couples sometimes use their emotions as weapons.