Director: Ruben Östlund
Cast: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Karin Myrenberg Faber, Brady Corbet
MPAA Rating: (for some language and brief nudity)
Running Time: 1:58
Release Date: 10/24/14 (limited); 11/21/14 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 20, 2014
The inciting incident of Force Majeure is an anticlimax. It should, for all intents and purposes, be the end of its own story. There's a controlled avalanche on the mountainside next to a ski resort in the French Alps. This is not unusual. We see the flashes and hear the echoes of explosions at night, detonated as a tool to diminish the chances of a natural avalanche occurring. As they eat breakfast on the terrace of the resort's restaurant, vacationing families and couples watch with mounting dread and terror as the rolling mass of snow rushes toward them.
Writer/director Ruben Östlund captures the avalanche and the mass exodus from the balcony in a one-take that is temporarily blinded by a white haze of a blizzard. As it clears, people slowly make their way back to the balcony, joining those who were left behind in the rush and going about their business as if nothing had happened.
In a way, nothing did happen, at least from the perspective of considering what could have happened. In those moments after the avalanche, everyone on that terrace silently, collectively agrees to treat the event as a nonoccurrence—a story to tell and laugh about and maybe get a little embarrassed over how they reacted. Then again, they might repeat after finishing the story, it was pretty terrifying, seeing that unstoppable wall of snow coming at them. For a moment, they were staring death in the face. In the end, of course, it was nothing.
This—the belief that the event was nothing—is what the main characters of the film, a married couple on vacation at the resort with their two children, want to say. They even agree to that moral of the story after having a brief discussion about what happened in the moment when their terror was its peak. The wife says that the husband grabbed his gloves and phone before running away from his family without any hesitation. He argues that he doesn't remember it happening that way.
Östlund's staging of the incident is rather ingenious in the way we—in the heat of the moment—are incapable of discerning any kind of objective truth about what happens. The family is just another faceless group in the crowd. We see men, women, and children running from the incoming snow, but in the pandemonium and blur of white powder, is it even possible to observe what Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), the husband, actually did? Even when evidence in the form of a video on a cellphone is reluctantly offered for review, Östlund's camera stays on the faces of those watching it.
This is to say that Östlund is less concerned with what happens than with the characters' perspectives of and about behavior. The distinction is vital: The characters' perspective of another's behavior provides an emotional reaction, and his or her perspective about another's behavior informs us of their worldview—their expectations for how someone should behave.
For Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), the wife, the perception is that her husband abandoned her and their children (Clara Wettergren and Vincent Wettergren). In her mind, that act is not the norm. It is something cowardly—something of which Tomas should be ashamed. He failed not only as a husband and a father but also as a man.
The film asks an impossible question with its scenario: Is it a shameful act? It is, for what kind of man leaves his wife and children to fend for themselves in the midst of a potential disaster? It is not, for what kind of human being ignores the instinct of self-preservation when he or she is threatened with a destructive force beyond one's control? The whole film is an argument between and in favor of both sides. Both are correct, and both are found wanting.
The film is incisive about its characters' attitudes and what those attitudes say about our cultural beliefs in regards to gender roles. Even more surprisingly, it is slyly, wryly comic about these things.
After the couple agrees to take a unified front about downplaying the avalanche and what Tomas may or may not have done, Ebba interrupts a conversation with Tomas' friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his younger girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius) to inform them of Tomas' cowardice. Fanny immediately offers a sympathetic hand to Ebba's shoulder, and Mats begins to devise some inane, hypothetical justification for his buddy's behavior (that he ran off so that he could survive in order to come back and save his family). The debate infects Mats and Fanny's relationship, leading to her noting that he probably would also run away and him being unable to sleep after the insult to his masculinity.
Ebba finds her own traditional beliefs about femininity similarly challenged by a woman (Karin Myrenberg Faber) who explains her open marriage. Ebba takes the very notion that a woman would put her desire for happiness over her obligation to family as a personal affront. She has seen her maternal instincts in action when confronted with the avalanche, and that must be an explanation for cultural expectations regarding the role of women. Of course, it's not that the woman puts her own needs over her family that irks Ebba; it's that both can exist in apparent harmony.
This is intelligent, nonjudgmental filmmaking about baffled, hypercritical people. Force Majeure ends with dual, enigmatic sequences of resolution that are ultimately as anticlimactic as the avalanche. The first involves an act of heroism that seems tidy enough to suggest that it may have been staged (Then there's another question: by whom?), and the second involves a potential disaster that simultaneously puts the characters in their "natural" places and on equal ground. If we take anything from these sequences, it's that Östlund sees the debate at the film's heart as one that is as absurd as it is inescapable.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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