Complete Control
By Michael Koresky

Force Majeure
Dir. Ruben Ă–stlund, Sweden, Magnolia Pictures

There’s nothing subtle about using a literal avalanche as a catalyst for the disruption of a seemingly perfect nuclear family, but it’s a lack of subtlety that’s surely not lost on director Ruben Östlund. A filmmaker of clinical precision who in past films, such as the static-framed, multi-strand Involuntary (an investigation into the emotional violence unleashed by the groupthink mentality of our day-to-day interactions), has treated cinema as a forum for sociological case studies more than character-driven narratives, Östlund has with Force Majeure happened upon the perfect union of silly metaphor and chilly atmosphere. The avalanche in question portends not physical but emotional destruction, wreaking havoc on the film’s central foursome—the mom, dad, daughter, and son of an attractive, white, and fitfully wealthy Swedish family on an expensive ski trip in the French Alps. It’s one of those films that critics are apt to praise as a “dissection,” so eagerly does it slice open its characters to lay bare their fears, desires, and hypocrisies. Yet for Östlund, unlike perhaps Michael Haneke, a clear inspiration for his films, you have to be cruel to be kind, and Force Majeure is not just another takedown of bourgeois privilege, but rather an identifiably humane portrait of the crippling shame bred by socially prescribed gender roles.

The trip starts off as routine and pleasant enough—the family pose for an insistent photo hawker; they get acquainted with other couples and coo over child photos; all four nap peacefully together in matching blue pastel sweats, forming a nearly perfect mound of restful bodies. In one shot, all four of them, en route to the slopes, move through a tunnel toward the camera on a conveyer belt; the son drops one of his gloves, and the mother, coming inexorably from behind, picks it up without a hitch—the family unit as well-oiled machine. Yet Östlund gives warning that something is about to unsettle their snowy idyll. Occasional cannon blasts, sending off sound waves to create small, manmade avalanches, come as shocking interjections. Exacerbating the ominousness, the terrain is captured in tracking shots across the mountains that move with a mechanical smoothness that makes the environment seem alien, almost science-fiction-like. Östlund’s tight, white, antiseptic aesthetic makes sense for this material, which is so much about control and how desperate we are to maintain it over our selves and surroundings.

So when the family is lunching on a mountainside restaurant terrace at the resort and the powdery debris from a not-too-distant avalanche gets closer and closer with frightening determination, dad Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) is convinced that what he’s seeing is all under control. It has to be. Nevertheless, it looks more like utter chaos as it rolls toward the diners and covers them in a complete whiteout of snow—all captured by the director in a single, static take, which remains immobile even after the air starts to clear and we see the two terrified children clinging to mom Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli). Tomas is gone. As the diners regain their composure and sit back down to their meals, Tomas casually makes his way back into the frame, half-heartedly checking on everyone. But there’s a change in the air and it’s not just the snow particles still hovering. After lunch, the four of them return to the hotel via that same tunnel, but they are emerging on the other side a different family. Everything has altered.

In outline, Force Majeure is not unlike Julia Loktev’s 2011 film The Loneliest Planet, which detailed the quiet breakdown of a young couple’s relationship after the male half of the pair proves himself cowardly in a dangerous situation. Yet Loktev let the shocking central event of the film subtly emotionally color the rest of the film’s interactions (or lack of interactions) rather than having the man and woman confront what happened. Force Majeure, more wry and punishing, soon thrusts Tomas and Ebba into a succession of acrimonious back-and-forths that not only affect them and their children but also other vacationers. At first it seems as though Ebba will swallow her anger and disappointment. Tomas speaks first: “You seem irritated,” feigning unawareness about what might be upsetting her. “Should I be?” she answers, fishing. “No.” “Ok.” But after the kids, all but shaking with unarticulated anger, kick them both out of the hotel room, it’s clear issues have been uncovered that they will have to deal with before they can get away from their getaway.

As the story of a near-death experience—in which the family unit itself is at risk of dying—Force Majeure is oddly unemotional. It’s far more intrigued by the social construct and concept of family than by how one might actually work. Nevertheless, however ruthless in its aims, Östlund’s film is not ungenerous, allowing us to put ourselves in its characters’ positions rather than stand back and judge them—a form of empathy.

Outside forces have not descended upon Tomas and Ebba to try and break up their marriage; the avalanche has simply loosened already present weaknesses and sent them tumbling down. Once they can acknowledge this, then perhaps they can begin to confront the actual problems in the relationship. The evening after the event, the heretofore model couple is so shaken up by the fact that they are fighting at all that they crumble into laughing and hugs to ease the building tension. But the next day, Ebba is clearly still perturbed, testing her own moral boundaries by grilling a fellow hotel guest about her allegedly happy open marriage with thinly veiled fascination. The possibility of a different life is clearly on her mind as she ascends alone in a ski lift, her head surrounded by the sky’s blinding whiteness. Being away from Tomas and the kids for an entire day does not ease her mind, however, as a spontaneous pizza dinner with a freshly arrived Norwegian couple, Mats and Fanni (Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius), becomes an epically awkward Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf–ish night of vituperation and confessionals, with Ebba tirelessly goading Tomas to admit that he knowingly ran from and abandoned his family in a time of need.

This sequence doesn’t serve to further humiliate Tomas or to merely reiterate the film’s themes and plot: it pushes Force Majeure into the brute, philosophical realm in which Östlund is truly functioning. It may be man’s obligation to protect his family, but is it his nature? Mats, who with his forest of red beard, bulky frame, and wild eyes looks like nothing less than early man personified, claims that when the chips are down, survival instinct kicks in, a primitive force that ensures that heroism is in fact an aberration. None of this of course makes Tomas or Ebba feel any better—nor does it help the viewer in wondering what he might have done if put in the same position, or what her response would be. Once Tomas can tearfully admit he was more interested in self-preservation, the question arises: does a split-second reaction count so much as to negate a lifetime of support and love?

Östlund is on firmer ground when asking such questions than he is when poking holes in contemporary maleness, which is at its most irritating during a late-film interlude when Tomas is dragged along to a noisy nightclub by a bunch of drunk, frattish resort guests who doff their shirts before screaming and slurping pints of beer in a direct-to-camera bacchanalia. Expressive in his placid demeanor, Kuhnke is good enough at dramatizing his character’s masculinity crisis without such in-your-face gauntlets. At film’s opening, he is confident and virile, his muscular physique just this side of beefy, his face betraying no hint of doubt in his own social and familial status. Near the end, he’s exposed as an infant, wailing as his family falls upon him in a weepy pile. In his need to push Tomas and his audience to a crucial catharsis, Östlund risks making his main character into a buffoon, his breakdown carefully decimating the film’s studied removal, but also betraying its quiet, economical empathy.

Nevertheless, it’s one tonal misstep en route to a cagily successful climax set, necessarily, back on the mountaintop—the rare ambiguous conclusion that fully earns its motivational mysteries. (The film’s oddly attenuated epilogue is not quite as successful.) Is what finally happens up there engineered by the characters? And for whose sake? Or maybe it’s just we the audience who have been catered to, in our need for resolution. Either way, Östlund’s denouement reminds us that, however ruled by instincts we may be, we are ultimately the writers of our own destinies.