FORCE MAJEURE -film review by Eleanor De Fer
The title Force Majeure is French for “superior force” and refers to a clause which in a contract, removes the obligation of certain parties when an unavoidable catastrophes occur. In the case of the film Force Majeure, this catastrophe is a false alarm avalanche that disrupts the course of family ski trip and the entire dynamics within a family. This notion of obligations being called into question within a seemingly cookie-cutter family makes for a film that leaves you thinking for hours, if not days after the film is finished.
Director Ruben Östlund cleverly opens the film with the leading family, parents Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and children Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Wettergren) posing for a picture on the first day of their ski trip. In this moment, the audience feels excited along with the family, ready to embark on the ski trip. This continues in the first part of film where they maintain an adorable exterior, even wearing matching long underwear, all snuggled in the same bed. However when they sit down for lunch, a “controlled avalanche” quickly appears to go uncontrolled, destroying what we saw before as a picture perfect family. When the avalanche occurs, Tomas disregards his role as a father and a protector and quickly runs from the table, leaving his wife and children behind. His son Harry calls out for him, but he has already fled the table. Luckily for Ebba and the children, the avalanche did not fully reach the restaurant patio and no one is harmed, even the food is still on the table. What is harmed is Ebba’s perception of her husband, and Tomas’s dignity. This brings up the existential question at the film’s core: Would you be able to act morally in the event of a disaster? The film explores the notion that it is easy to say how you would react while not under pressure, but it is a whole other thing to actually execute that action.
The rest of the film is filled with awkward and strained filled moments between Tomas and Ebba in which they try to make sense of what happened. What makes the film so interesting is that the way they cope with what happened is unexpected and almost unexplainable. Of course Ebba is angry, yet her anger is heightened by the fact that Tomas won’t admit to doing it. Even though we the viewer watch Tomas with our own eyes dash away from the table and hear Harry’s pained wails calling for his father, Tomas insists that he didn’t leave the table. Their anger towards one another culminates in a tension filled yet slightly humorous scene, where Ebba and Tomas have a dinner party with another couple, Mats and Fanny, in which Ebba emotionally recounts everything that has occurred. After sitting silently listening to his wife tarnish his character, Tomas disagrees vehemently. The other couple leave the dinner remarking how dysfunctional Ebba and Tomas’s relationship is, yet they quickly begin to bicker over what each of them would do if a catastrophe were to occur after Mats attempts to defend Tomas. Ebba and Tomas’s relationship continues to be turbulent, culminating in a surprising final scene that tests the characters’ fight or flight instincts once again.
Force Majeure’s triumph exists in Östlund’s ability to explore the martial drama in such a way that we think Tomas is wimpy and a poor father, yet at the same time we can’t help but wonder if we aren’t any better than him. It is easy to say that you could do better, but you can’t know that until you are actually in the situation. As the audience, we question Tomas’s actions: both the fact that he ran away from his family, but also that he lied about it. The film is so enthralling to watch because you begin to wonder if Tomas is lying or if he is in such a state of delusion that he himself actually believes that he didn’t run away. His desperation to regain the respect of Ebba and his children is almost depressing, but entertaining nonetheless. Ebba’s role is equally interesting, in that she experiences a dichotomy in that she wants to hold her family together, yet her husband doesn’t seem like the man she once knew. This brings up the moral quandary if Ebba should just sacrifice her feelings in order to put the whole ordeal in the family’s past, or if she should address it directly.
Another layer that Östlund expertly adds to his film is the idea of the role that children play in times of turbulence. In the beginning Harry and Vera seem like they are just background characters, just acting as bratty children. However, the complexity is made clear when we see them sitting together on Harry’s bed crying after hearing their parents fight, believing their parent will get a divorce. To them it doesn’t matter how, but they want their parents to be together. During this particular fight, Tomas has become inconsolable on the ground crying over what he has become. When they see their father upset, they see Ebba as the bad guy. The complexity of the film is viewed from a simplistic view from their standpoint where a complicated issue can be put in terms of there being a good guy and and bad guy.
Additionally, the idea of where fulfillment in life comes from is also explored through the different choices in terms of family the characters have made. Ebba and Tomas have a standard lifestyle with their two young kids. The couple they dine with is made up of Mats, who has children and an ex-wife, and is dating the much younger Fanny. Ebba also converses with another woman, Charlotte who is married with kids, but maintains an open relationship with her husband. In talking with Charlotte, Ebba feels threatened when Charlotte discusses her rather carefree lifestyle where she puts a lot of weight in her own well being. Outwardly Ebba judges Charlotte, thinking she does not care for her children and husband, yet it is clear that Ebba wonders herself if she is too tied to her children and husband. These thoughts are especially prevalent due to the events following the avalanche in which she frequently has to give up her own happiness in order to maintain the stability of her family.
The film is unique in the depth in which it explores such themes as truth, morality, family, and denial. While the audience makes quick judgements about the characters, the film quickly makes you second guess yourself and question if you truly know the people you love or even yourself.