2010-2019: Best Films of Past Decade–Force Majeure (Sweden, 2014): Probing Marriage Dynamics Under Duress with Sharp Eye and Subtle Humor

Watching Together While Apart

Alone/Together in the Dark

I had an interesting argument a couple of weeks ago with a cherished colleague and friend, who’s also a critic.  He claimed, based on his common sense, that during the Coronovirus pandemic, viewers wish to see escapist entertainment, sort of fluffy undemanding fare, such as broad comedies, dazzling musicals, fast-paced actioners and adventures.

I have never fully subscribed to the escapist theory–in essence-, that in dreary times, audiences would opt for everything and anything that would let them forget for a few hours the surrounding grim reality.

When an international magazine asked for my choices of the great films of the past decade, I began to construct lists of films that have impressed me at their initial release, and have continued to linger in memory in terms of ideas, motifs, characters, images, and sounds.

For purposes of simplicity, my list 30 great movies of the past decade is presented alphabetically.  Obviously, the films reflect my taste as I look back and revisit them from a distance.  As such, they are inevitably singular and biased. No need to agree with my filmic hierarchy, but as a critic it’s my duty and privilege to expose readers to films they might not have seen upon initial release, or wish to revisit from a different viewpoint, and with the perspective of time.

Force Majeure: Essay written in 2014 at its Cannes Fest Premiere

A critical favorite at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it deservedly won the Jury Prize in the Certain Regard series, the Swedish film Force Majeure is an unusually perceptive “disaster” film without a disaster.

As is well known, force majeure is a legal concept denoting unforeseen and unanticipated yet disruptive circumstances, and in this movie it is applied to the obstruction of the contractual terms of one marriage.

Icily gripping, Force Majeure should provoke debates about marital and familial responsibilities in extreme situations of duress and unexpected crises, such as a life-threatening snow avalanche.

Boasting a subtle, multi-nuanced direction by Ruben Östlund (a major talent to watch), Force Majeure is a precisely observed morality psychodrama with existential issues.

At the center of the tale is a seemingly perfect nuclear family, headed by a handsome businessman named Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), his willowy and radiant Norwegian wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their pre-teen children, Vera and Harry (played by real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren).

When the story begins, the sun is shining strong and the slopes of the French Alps look gorgeous.  All seems beautiful, calm and stable.  But things change on the second day of the week-long vacation, while the family is having a relaxed lunch at a mountainside restaurant, populated by other people.n avalanche suddenly turns everything upside down.

Fearing a menacing avalanche, the panicked diners begin to fleeing in all directions, Ebba calls out for her husband, as she tries to protect their children.  But Tomas is absent: It turns out that whether consciously or not, he behaved selfishly, grabbing his iPhone and fleeing the scene, leaving behind Ebba and the kids encased in a dense fog.  

Miraculously, the anticipated big disaster does not occur. The powder cloud of the avalanche gives the appearance that the snow is rising and will wipe out everyone on the deck. Tomas, who is shooting the avalanche on his mobile phone, panics and runs away as the deck quickly empties of patrons, leaving Ebba with their children. Minutes later, the patrons return to their tables as the fog dissipates, and no one is hurt.

Was Tomas’ decision instinctive or spontaneous, motivated by primal human need for self preservation? The reasons for his conduct are less important than its ricocheting effects, shaking forever the family’s world to its core.  They  fittingly assume the shape of snowballs….. 

The event throws all the relationships into a mode of crisis, calling into question the very (shaky) foundations of the family as an institution.  What seemed to be the very model of a happy marriage and stable family now hangs in the balance.  In the course of the ensuing days, Tomas, who behaved irresponsibly in terms of societal norms and expectations, is forced to engage for the first time in soul-searching, struggling to reclaim his role as the clan’s reliable head and a;so reassert his proper sense of manhood.

Spanning seven days, the story relates in utmost precision and detail–via sharp dialogue, visual signals, and body gestures–the couple’s behavior and family’s interactions, both in private and in public.

That evening they eat dinner with one of Ebba’s friends, who has picked up an American man. Ebba tells the avalanche story in English, while Tomas insists that he did not run away; significantly, he adds in Swedish (not English) that no man can run in ski boots. The couple argue in front of their guests, who are both shocked and embarrassed by the story. Determined to publicly humiliate her hubby, Ebba is angry that Tomas would not admit that he ran away, abandoning his family.

Ebba’s first step of independence is to have a day of skiing by herself. Later, while having drinks, Ebba confronts her friend on her adultery, needing to know if she really loves her husband and children. Her friend confirms she is fine with the open relationship with her husband, and that she would be happy if he engages in a sexual affair with another woman.

Mats, Tomas’ old friend, joins them at the resort with his young girlfriend, Fanny.  After dinner, Ebba again recounts the story of the avalanche, and the guests react in silent horror. Mats suggests that “we are not ourselves” in emergencies, naming the Estonia disaster as example. Tomas again insists that  he has a different perspective of the events.

To prove her point, Ebba brings Tomas’s phone, and all four watch the video of the incident. Tomas finally and reluctantly agrees the footage showed someone running, but he keeps silent when Mats speculates that Tomas was running away so that he could come back and dig out his family later.  When Fanny suggests that she would expect Mats to react the same way as Tomas, Mats gets irritated.  Now. it’s their relationship that goes through changes for the rest of the trip.

Tomas and Mats ride the ski lift in silence, when Mats suggests Tomas try primal screaming.  Tomas obliges by screaming swear words into the Alps.

Tomas later confesses to Ebba that he hates himself, his cowardice, his cheating in games with his kids, his unfaithfulness. Breaking down, he weeps as his children, hearing their parents argue, join in crying.

Will there be catharsis? On their final day, the family ascends in the ski lift silently, and Ebba shows concern about the thick fog. This time around, Tomas volunteers to go first, followed by the children and Ebba.  When Ebba gets lost in the fog, Tomas leaves the children alone to search for her. After rescuing her, he sets her down, with a grin on his face.

Family and friends leave the resort by coach down the winding mountain road, when Ebba claims that the driver is incompetent, demanding to be let off. Panic ensues, and this time, it’s Mats who takes charge, insisting that the women and children get off first. Eventually, they exit the bus, and descend the road on foot, with Mats and Fanny walking apart.

In the last, symbolic scene, Tomas initially declines an offer from a stranger to smoke, but then accepts. Challenged by his son Harry, who has not seen his dad smoking during the entire vacation, Tomas simply says that he now does.

Director Ruben Östlund, who had previously shot some skiing films (and thus knows the turf) attributed the inspiration for the key scenes to viral YouTube videos, which corroborated the plausibility of the characters and their emotions.  He reasoned that “if someone captured an event or action or pang of emotion on camera and uploaded to the Internet, then it happened in real life. And it could happen in Force Majeure.” The scene where Ebba demands to be let off the bus is based on the YouTube viral video titled “Idiot Spanish bus driver almost kills students.

He further acknowledged that, though many marriages do not survive such catastrophic tests, and often end up in break-ups and divorces, he decides to conclude his tale on a more upbeat note.

Structured as a dark satire, the movie is humorously odd and disturbing, bearing resemblance to Luis Bunel’s critiques of bourgeois complacency in his late European films.  The caustic condemnations are presented with subtle humor.

Force Majeure is the kind of morality tale that inevitably urges viewers to probe themselves about how they themselves would behave whiling facing similar unforeseen circumstances.

Cast
Johannes Bah Kuhnke as Tomas
Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba
Clara Wettergren as Vera
Vincent Wettergren as Harry
Kristofer Hivju as Mats
Fanni Metelius as Fanny

Credits:

Directed, written by Ruben Östlund
Produced by Erik Hemmendorff, Marie Kjellson, Philippe Bober
Music by Ola Fløttum
Cinematography: Fredrik Wenzel
Edited by Jacob Secher Schulsinger
Release date: May 18, 2014 (Cannes); October 15, 2014 (U.S.)
Running time: 119 minutes