Film Review: Östlund’s 'Force Majeure' Takes Pleasure in Making us Squirm

Force Majeure, the film that won Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund the Cannes Jury Prize last year, is a blackly comic dissection of threatened masculinity that somehow manages to be reminiscent of both Dogme 95 films like Festen and of David Lynch’s cold, strangely formal gaze. It’s also very funny, in a deeply uncomfortable sort of way. Strikingly, it derives not only comedy but also quite a bit of thematic weight from the fact that its central happening in fact doesn’t really happen at all. It all hinges on a hypothetical.

It’s a sort of variation on the ‘what would YOU do?’ format (see also: pretty much any movie ever that involves someone failing to do the sensible thing after finding a bag of loot, and films such as Indecent Proposal), with an added dose of Euro-bile. Those movies, though, ask the question and then show us the inevitable disaster as it ensues; with Force Majeure, Östlund complicates things by looking at an entirely hypothetical disaster, and asks what kinds of more subtle ruin might result from one of those.

the set-up asks some very compelling and not necessarily pleasant questions

The story: a Swedish family of four - parents Tomas and Ebba, children Vera and Harry - spend a few days in a French ski resort. Wealthy, fairly sophisticated, attractive, Tomas and Ebba’s problems at first seem to amount to little more than his workaholism (even here he can’t quite seem to leave his iPhone behind). Then disaster strikes, nearly, in the form of an avalanche that threatens to engulf the mountainside restaurant at which the family is eating lunch. In fact, the avalanche is man-made and controlled, but when the cloud of snow dissipates harmlessly something has occurred that can’t be ignored: Tomas, faced with imminent danger, turned and ran, leaving Ebba and the children to fend for themselves.

Obviously, the set-up asks some very compelling and not necessarily pleasant questions. When faced with the survival imperative, will those around us live up to our - and our culture’s - expectations of them? More pointedly, can we trust ourselves to live up to those expectations? One senses the pleasure Östlund takes in making us squirm - particularly the men in the room.

The body of the film concerns Ebba’s attempts to force Tomas’s acknowledgment of his failure, once it becomes clear that he’s attempting to deny or at least avoid the truth. In an escalating series of encounters, she forces the point in various social situations (first with strangers they’ve met at the resort, then with an old friend who’s joined them with his young girlfriend). This precipitates some craven behaviour from Tomas, as well as some painfully funny scenes, an eventual breakdown of sorts and what I took to be, despite some ambiguity, a really interesting resolution on Ebba’s part.

If I’m right - and, since you’ve followed me this far, let’s agree that I am - it suggests a fascinating construction of the modern family, in which the female partner goes along with a deluded male self-construction for simply pragmatic reasons. Not only does she see through it, she is actively and consciously involved in its construction - for the sake of the children, presumably, and perhaps just for some peace and quiet.

The film is beautifully performed, expertly paced and has beneath its uncomfortable laughs considerable intelligence

Force Majeure is an excellent film. It takes great delight in lingering on apparently mundane expressions and activities but shades that docu-style realism with some more stylised sequences including a sinister janitor’s lingering presence and several long and meticulously-constructed shots of the family in transit (and one of the most incongruous edits in recent memory, which still strikes me as bizarre - you’ll know it when you see it). The film is beautifully performed, expertly paced and has beneath its uncomfortable laughs considerable intelligence. Another masterstroke is the fact that the central failure is hypothetical, since it therefore raises a double anxiety: Östlund wants to remind us that chances to demonstrate physical bravery are vanishingly rare, and that if we fail to take one such opportunity we likely won’t get another. We don’t know when such a moment will arise or how we might react, and if we fail as Tomas does when will the chance at redemption come? Probably never, and so the failure will utterly and irretrievably define our character. His fear and dread of this are palpable, even as - because - he pathetically attempts to deny his actions. When the finality of this is somewhat compromised towards the end, it’s done in such a way as to make his position seem even bleaker and more deluded.

There is another compromise in the film that, I think, constitutes its problem, if it has one. I won’t reveal too much, but this type of cinema relies for much of its power on asking hard, universal questions; much of its capacity to disturb, provoke and amuse derives from its insistence that the characters’ failings are the viewer’s own. Here, though, much of that slyly accusatory tension is defused by a slight over-egging of Tomas’s failings and of the virtue of another main character. If Tomas is simply an unmitigated schmuck, if we don’t look at him and see our own worst selves, then Force Majeure as a film is subtly reduced. It’s not much of a complaint, but when discussing a film that’s all about delusion and the failure of self-perception it would seem weak not to mention it at all.

More about the author

About the author

Abe Davies is a writer and journalist. He has a couple of literature degrees from UEA and St Andrews, and has written on everything from cognac to Shakespeare's ghosts to contemporary American photography. He's also worked in marketing and publicity in the publishing industry for five years, and when he was younger in a lot of restaurants.

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