IN FORCE MAJEURE, Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s unsettling new movie, an ideal Swedish family, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke from “Wallender”), Ebba (beautiful Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two lovely kids, are in the French Alps on a brief skiing holiday. He’s been working too hard and needs to take a break…needs to reconnect with the family. They’re staying at an expensive (if cold looking) resort and as they prepare for another day of family skiing, they repair to breakfast on the resort’s picturesque verandah.
The verandah overlooks the rugged undulations of the towering snow-iced Alps; that morning, the sky is an unblemished blue and the waiter service tinkles along with understated efficiency. Somewhere in the distance a boom is heard. Nothing unexpected. This is simply the resort managing a controlled avalanche, which we see happening way out, in the out of focus distance. But then the avalanche comes closer and closer. The susurration of breakfast chatter becomes drowned out by the deep roars of what is now a threatening wall of fast moving snow. Tomas, the dad, keeps trying to reassure his increasingly terrified children that all is under control. But as the snow powers it way toward them, obliterating both the sky and decorum, panic sets in and all is chaos.
Ebba grabs her kids and hunkers down protectively under the table. Tomas grabs his cell phone and flees like a bat out of hell.
She has protected her kids. As is expected of her.
He has run away.
And thereby hangs a tale.
Tomas’ instinct – to save his own hide – is a violation of everything that’s expected of a parent, a husband and, critically, a man. In this single act of reflexive unthinking self-centeredness, Tomas becomes – to wife, children and even to himself – not the man they thought he was…or perhaps not the man they thought he should have been. The unspoken bond – of familiarity – that holds families and marriages together has, in an instant, been snapped.
To wife Ebba, her husband’s act is a violation of ‘what’s expected’. To her, his instinctive rush to self-preservation recasts him as a coward, a failed dad, and,even as she coyly flaunts her off-limits nudity at him, the archetypal emasculated man. It’s a self-image that he himself buys in to, and is weighed under by.
The force majeure of the title is more than the dark, brooding icy skies that have now replaced the scenic blueness of the Alps, it’s the force of social construct. It’s the force that governs more than how we behave, it governs our public sense of who we are and what passes for character.
But the deeper, and perhaps more potent force majeure is that animal instinct unconstrained by social niceties, by “what’s expected” and which bookmarks the movie – him at the beginning and an equally instinctive act of self-preservation by Ebba at the end.
The story explores this rich dichotomy between instinctive and learned behavior, between the private world (that has now been violated) and the public world meant to be shared; between what we really are and who we seem to be. The point is brilliantly illustrated when a mysterious fellow guest confesses to Ebba that, though a married mother of two (like Ebba) she has an open relationship with her husband. Both partners feel free to play around. Ebba is shocked that anyone can so openly give in to and harmonize her instinctive, animal, sexual self with her social, maternal self.
Director Ostlund suggests that most of us simply avoid or run away from these darker existential questions raised by the force of our instinctive ids. Unless confronted it will, at some stage, unmask us all.
“Force Majeure” marvelously takes what is on the surface the small domestic drama of a man coming to terms with himself and his marriage (and not really liking what he sees) and turns it into a brooding, always unsettling examination of human nature.
Ostlund’s sound design juxtaposes the jarring intrusion of Vivaldi’s “Summer concerto” (ironically) with the subtler everyday sounds of ski lifts, skis falling over etc. to create a mood of pending disaster. His visuals cut away, sometimes unexpectedly, from the flow of the story to odd vignettes, such as one of male rowdiness (a drunken stag party filled with vomiting half naked male revelers) and always of the hills, the snow, slow moving ice machines, the near invisible pathways of the ski lifts.
It may be a skiing holiday, but in Ostlund’s hands, it’s nearer to Kurtz’ curse: “the horror, the horror”
FORCE MAJEURE: Dir and writer: Ruben Ostlund. with Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli; Cinematographer: Fredrik Wenzel