How would you react if the lives of you and your loved ones were in immediate, life-threatening danger? Would you even be able to choose what action to take or would instinct alone inform your response? These are the questions Ruben Östlund asks in his latest feature, Force Majeure, using the spectacular surroundings of the French Alps to explore one man’s fight-or-flight instinct and the consequences it has on his relationship with his family.
The Critics Say
“Mightily clever in its rather theatrical structure, but bracingly cinematic in its formal approach, the movie has a bold, ambiguous final act.” – Tim Robey, The Telegraph
Force Majeure pivots on one terrifying scenario; Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and his family, on a skiing holiday in the Alps, take a break from the slopes to have lunch at a mountainside restaurant. As they sit to eat, a controlled avalanche is triggered on the mountain opposite and as the snow begins to run down the slope the restaurant patrons turn to watch and record the impressive spectacle. In a moment, however, the mood turns to panic as it starts to look like the wall of snow is heading directly for them. The rest of the film revolves around Tomas’s reaction in the face of this danger but more importantly his unwillingness to confront it and the damaging effect this has on his wife and children.
Obfuscation is a common trait of Ruben Östlund’s film-making. He often turns his characters away from the camera so that we can’t rely on their faces to interpret their emotional state. Sometimes they are removed from the frame completely and their dialogue given context by the reactions of those included in the frame, a touch like Michael Haneke although distinctly less violent. With Force Majeure this is taken further so that the characters are not only hidden from the viewer but, frequently, from each other. Östlund uses the spectacular alpine setting to full effect in this regard, obscuring the picture completely on two occasions, first in the aftermath of the avalanche and then later when the family embark upon a ski run where the fog has reduced visibility to almost zero. The two instances each represent a clean slate of sorts as the damage done by the avalanche to the family dynamic is undone by a heroic act of absolution on Tomas’s part. A passage from Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ concerto has repeated throughout the film to this point and in this scene, as Tomas emerges from the fog carrying his wife, the music marks his triumphant return. With reason to speculate that the whole episode is staged by Tomas and his wife, however, it is a fanfare laced with irony.
Aside from these two scenes the film’s drama is generated by the difficulties Tomas and the family go through in between. His wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is indignant that her husband refuses to acknowledge his inadequacies and it is a feeling we share as his denials accumulate. There is a feeling that there is more to his story, although when we discover what this is we’re not fully prepared for it. Neither were the powers of the Cannes Film Festival, who would only agree to show Force Majeure in competition if Tomas’s ‘confession’ scene was shortened. Östlund refused as he claims in an interview with Sight & Sound that the scene ‘forces people to look at the film in a different way. It would be a much easier film to watch without it – less disturbing.’ He’s right; the entire tone of the film shifts after this scene and while the family’s difficulties may be a long way from solved this perhaps represents the first step in Tomas’s redemption, however uncomfortable it may be to watch.
The restraint of the couple is matched by Östlund’s camera which, apart from its gliding runs down the ski slopes alongside the family, is mostly static. Their hotel room becomes claustrophobic so many of their conversations take place on the landing. An eavesdropping, omnipresent cleaner is apparent at these points, the most enigmatic of the recurring characters and a distinctly voyeuristic one. Östlund has explored similar themes before, specifically the encroachment of technology upon our lives and the fixation with recording the particulars of our existence. In Involuntary (2008), characters were photographed at their most vulnerable, either passed out and inebriated or naked, doing a handstand with a Swedish flag planted somewhere….unsavoury (no, really). Here it’s in a rather more sombre context, Ebba keen to remind Tomas that as far as she can tell her husband values his iPhone over his children. The phone in question is used against Tomas, a video he captured revealing his actions during the avalanche which, to this point, he has refused to concede. Watch how vulnerable Tomas looks while the video is playing.
Ruben Östlund has taken a slender idea for a story and managed to fill it out into a two-hour feature film without losing any of the narrative impetus that the avalanche itself triggers. Like Involuntary the build-up before this point is gradual yet the conclusion, although somewhat open-ended, provides some more insight into the human reaction in the face of danger. This time Ebba’s actions are the ones to scrutinise and, as Tomas walks hand-in-hand with his son along a cliff-side road, can we detect a note of triumph in his demeanour, or is it something like acceptance?
More by Ruben Östlund
Involuntary (2008) – A series of vignettes set in contemporary Sweden exploring the different ways that we behave alone, with our friends and in groups. Each story builds towards an ominous climax and Östlund’s reluctance to cut away from a scene means we have no choice but to watch where they are going.