Exposing the domestic tensions of a family following a near-avalanche, Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure offers a captivating and wry look at male weakness.
Snow In Paradiseby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Having cut his teeth on skiing movies, Force Majeure – with its snowbound alpine location – is something of a coming home for Ruben Östlund. But after examining the awkward ethics of social interaction in Involuntary and Play, the Swede brings a very domestic moral gaze to his latest film, as a marriage is put to the test following an avalanche at a skiing resort in France. But while Turist shows the same sensitivity to interpersonal relationships as his previous films, there’s also a masterful maturity to Östlund’s film that sees him at the top of his game. Be it the tableau of four napping family members clad head to toe in matching blue thermals or the Sisyphean ski belts that deliver them to a slope-side restaurant, there’s an eye for delicious visual detail a piste apart from his previous films. But whether hurtling down the black run of a family fallout or edging towards the precipice of honest self-understanding, Force Majeure is a slow-motion tragedy in the making, as its characters are forced to confront their true and most cowardly nature.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) is on a week’s skiing holiday in the French Alps with his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and his two children Harry and Vera. They turn their mobile phones off, get their photo taken and ski a few runs, but it’s not long before a controlled explosion triggers an avalanche that envelops the alfresco restaurant they’re having lunch at. Tomas’ pigheaded optimism suddenly turns to panic, running inside and abandoning his family – a primal act of cowardice from which there’s no going back. In shock, the couple try to gloss over it, thankful for the narrow escape. But it eats away at their relationship, as Tomas denies it, defends himself and refuses to admit to his moment of selfishness. It’s a sore scratched at for the course of their holiday until finally they leave, taking the bus down the snaking mountain roads. Terrified by the careless driving, Ebba insists on walking instead – an act of refusal that sees the whole bus walking cold and hungry down the mountain and into the quickly falling night. But together again as a family at last.
Bus drivers get a bad rap in Ruben Östlund’s films – either petty-minded and belligerent in Involuntary or angry and negligent here, but it’s a middle-class moral stand-off par excellence – as one person’s fear for their life spreads like wildfire amongst a group pitted against an indifferent jobsworth; a moral crusade with no winners, only self-consoling losers marching along a desolate mountain road into a bitterly cold night. Still, in Östlund’s universe it’s an act of defiance that deserves to be celebrated; a neat response to Tomas’ act of cowardice that, rather than dividing the family, unites it, saddling all of its members with the same fate.
But while Ebba’s moment of panic is sparked off by maternal protection, fearing for her own life and the lives of her family, it’s in stark contrast to Tomas’ moment of panic, which is entirely selfish. It’s every man for himself, as Tomas runs to safety leaving his family to fend for themselves. But while Östlund delves beneath the awkward morality of one’s unknown reactions to a catastrophe, Force Majeure veers between treating Tomas as an everyman and a scapegoat. The sins pile on – vanity (as two girls on the piste joke at finding him and his friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) good-looking) and as an absent husband and father (a Turist to family life reduced at long last to family man, but barely able to turn off his phone). And it’s an unlikeability crowned by Tomas’ hysterical sobbing – not a father at all, but rather somewhere between a sulking boy and a spineless shadow.
It’s a male weakness corroborated by the character of Mats, a forty-something loafer dating a much younger model, that makes man the laughing stock and victim of Force Majeure, locked out of his hotel room and walking its corridors in just a pair of thermals. But playing on one’s unknowable reaction to a fight-or-flight catastrophe, Östlund chooses the antihero, wallowing gloriously in the fallout from his involuntary action. Like a ‘force majeure’, it’s a weakness inherent to his character. Or perhaps to mankind itself, somehow lacking the umbilical bond of mothers, or the paternalistic desire to protect expected of him. But despite this cynical navel-gazing, there is hope – as despite the schism in their relationships, Tomas finds his way back to Ebba and his children – unable to undo the egotistical cowardice he gave into under pressure, but able to put his family first the rest of the time. It’s an awkward, precarious resolution – but enough to protect this little nuclear family from the onslaught of a higher power.
Force Majeure is released on 10th April 2014 in the UK