Force Majeure, a new, impressively shot film from Sweden takes a stark but funny look at the fragile fibers that hold together a family of four when the actions of the father calls the unit’s existence into question. Director Ruben Östlund uses both humor and an efficient sense of drama to examine the role of the father that draws in the audience to consider today’s notion of what makes a man. It’s tight filmmaking in the best sense, as it never over-reaches the human drama at the center of it but has vast echoes beyond the image on screen.
Östlund, who also wrote the screenplay, presents a rather interesting portrait of a modern man who screws up in a big way with the wrong gesture. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are on a ski vacation with their young children, older sister Vera (Clara Wettergren) and younger brother Harry (Vincent Wettergren). The crux of the film is hinted at early on, with a photographer who bullies the family off camera into taking some portraits on the slopes. Tomas goes with it, following orders from the man, who is left unseen on the other side of the lens.
But the real drama begins after the family has a close encounter with an avalanche while dining at an outdoor restaurant … and Tomas runs away, leaving his panicked wife and screaming children at the table. After the screen goes white and the snow powder clears, others around them have a laugh at the scare. At the edge of the frame, one laughing man even points his thumb at Tomas, as he returns to his shaken family. Though physically unscathed, the emotional wounds will be profound.
The film is all about the various ways Tomas is tested following the incident. It comes out not only in Ebba’s very public manner in dealing with the trauma by recounting what had occurred in the company of other couples but also in Tomas’ private moments afterward. Though he insists that Ebba’s perception of what happened is somehow warped, there is also no denying a weight is now bearing down on him. He must find some way to deal with it, and though he tries in various, very human ways, it culminates in a delicious moment of humor and pathos that will test the family further.
The drama would never be as interesting as it is had Östlund not considered the many ways Tomas’ actions has reframed his role as a patriarch. The director wastes nothing in the film’s pacing, the characters’ gestures and actions and especially the movie’s potent visuals. Against a landscape at its most intimidating, using anamorphic, widescreen lenses, Östlund presents the fragility of the family brilliantly without being overt. Early in the film, before the avalanche, the director infuses a sense of dread into the movie by simply juxtaposing scenes of domestic banality and the nocturnal maintenance of the ski-slopes with controlled avalanches. Against the frantic, extra-diegetic sound of Ola Fløttum’s score of rumbling strings and accordion, the family brushes its teeth. Meanwhile, outside, canons explode over the slopes to loosen snow, and a snowmobile zips across the screen followed by three lumbering snow tractors. The music and the sounds of buzzing machines, be they electric toothbrushes or industrial machinery, toggle to monopolize the soundtrack during pauses in Fløttum’s witty score. Tomas, domesticated and contained, handles an electric toothbrush as well as his wife and two children. Meanwhile, outside, in the night, real men, who we never see, speed around in machines to do manly work. Who knows? They might even be women.
Östlund wants the viewer to not only consider the man’s reaction during the avalanche but other details. It’s about gender roles in a modern age where everyone should be considered equal, lest you be considered sexist or politically incorrect. Though it does not come up in the movie, it is interesting to note that in Sweden it is not uncommon for a man to choose to take the wife’s last name when they marry. It’s important to consider this film comes from a country with such advanced ideas of gender roles. The film also brings up the idea of open marriage during an opportunity Ebba has to have a chat with a fellow married female vacationer who seems much happier than she does.
This is not the first time manliness has been called into question with a gesture in film (The Loneliest Planet did it more austerely: Film Review: the insignificance of trauma in the land of ‘The Loneliest Planet’), but that Östlund can find humor while considering a drama that has real pathos (you will feel for these people) is commendable. Force Majeure is smartly entertaining, shocking and funny, and it presents one of those hypothetical situations that demands discussion after the house lights go up. It presents it all in a tidy package with powerful performances and a sly, steady camera that’s both ironic and focused. It’s one of those great art house experiences that provokes on many levels without feeling cruel or overly serious, and it stands as one of the best cinematic experiences of 2014. It’s plain ingenious on all levels of cinematic story-telling and should not be missed.
Force Majeure runs 118 minutes, is in Swedish and English with English subtitles and Rated R (there’s some language and brief nudity). It opened exclusively in South Florida in at this Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday. On Nov. 14., it expands to the Gateway 4 in Fort Lauderdale and the Lake Worth Playhouse. It may already be playing at other theaters across the U.S. To check other screening locations, visit this website. Magnolia Pictures provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review.