Force Majeure: Probing Marriage and Family Dynamics Under Duress with Sharp Eye and Humor

Essay written in May 2014:

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.

The movie should provoke debates about marital and familial responsibilities in extreme situations and unexpected crises, such as a life-threatening snow avalanche.

After its world premiere in Cannes, “Force Majeure” played at the Telluride and Toronto Film Fests and is scheduled to bow theatrically on October 24.

Boasting a subtle, multi-nuanced direction, Force Majeure is a precisely observed psychodrama.  At its center 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 two pre-teen children, Vera and Harry.

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 filming the avalanche on his mobile phone, panics and runs as the deck quickly empties of patrons, leaving Ebba with their children . Patrons return to their tables as the fog dissipates, and no one is hurt.

Was Tomas’ decision instinctive and spontaneous, motivated by primal need for self preservation? The sources or reasons are less important than the effects of the decision, shaking forever the family’s world to its core.   

Indeed, 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 from the table; significantly he adds in Swedish that no one 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 him, Ebba is angry that Tomas would not admit that he ran away, abandoning them.

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) later said in a press conference that, though many marriages do not survive such catastrophic tests, and they end up in break-ups and divorces, he decides to conclude his tale on a more upbeat note.

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

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