Cinematic Releases: Force Majeure

Force Majeure is in limited U.S. release. Here's our review.

"Now children, don't forget
to brush your tongues."
Epic as it is small, quiet as it is bombastic, Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure uses a deceptively simple premise to pose larger, far more immediate questions about the French-Latin common law term.  A clause abdicating a party from responsibility should an unforeseeable act of God or natural disaster occurs, Force Majeure follows Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), a well-to-do family with two children vacationing on a luxurious skiing trip in the French Alps.  During an outdoor lunch break on a balcony overlooking the snow covered mountaintop, a controlled avalanche goes awry and barrels into the family of terrified onlookers.  The smoke clears and all are safe, but a greater horror emerges in the process: in a momentary act of cowardice, Tomas leaves Ebba and their children behind as he runs for cover.  Worse still, he’s unable to admit to his selfish conduct, leading to a series of increasingly awkward exchanges and burgeoning anger that threatens not only their relationship but also of friends they come to lean on.

Using the scenic natural grandeur of the French Alps and ski resort as a modern day Overlook Hotel, Force Majeure is a subtly ominous, droll commentary on mankind’s general tendency to think of himself before his fellow man.  What would you do in a fight or flight situation that threatened not only your life but those of your loved ones as well?  What’s especially striking about Östlund’s dark comedy is the perfect dynamic balance he achieves between the stark, vast vistas of the setting and the intensely up, close and personal conversations between the group of friends.  Borrowing opening cues and intertitles from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with cold, foreboding shots of the resort and the imposing mountains surrounding it, there’s a silent dread established about the setting as if the ice covered canyons could swallow this little family whole.  Distant thunder of controlled avalanches on the soundtrack imply a cataclysmic event on the horizon that threatens the calm and collected comfort zone the family believes they’re in.  In a move not unlike Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, the film shifts focus from the event to the aftermath it triggers and all affected by it. 

"Everybody run!!! Hoth will destroy us!!!

The discussion proposed by Force Majeure wouldn’t work half as effectively were it not for the brilliant performances by its cast.  In the film’s most awkward scene, Ebba dumps all her marital dirty laundry on the dinner table before their friends, even playing a video from an iPhone camera clarifying her husband’s cowardice. Watch as Kuhnke convincingly imbues Tomas with all the pride and pride of a family man trying to admit his failure to himself, the camera lingering on his face growing steadily more fraught with guilt.  A powerful counterpoint to Kuhnke’s husband on the verge of a nervous breakdown is Kongsli as Ebba, a woman struggling to come to grips with her own confusion of rage and forgiveness.  What makes her delivery to their peers so powerful is how she picks up right where she left off days before when the argument first arose privately.  Where Tomas shuts down in the hopes the drama will fade away, Ebba’s anger is as hot as ever and, come Hell or high water, is not going to be modulated by time.

A perfect union of cinema as grand visual experience and a richly detailed, often comical discussion piece, Force Majeure is one of the finest tuned and deeply insightful film experiences of the year.  The greatest complimentary description one can give the film is…humbling.  In an modern era where we’re so committed to the safety nets of our technological age and the comforting notion we will always be there for our loved ones, Force Majeure shakes up and exposes carefully established false pretenses to call into question where our commitments to our fellow man really stand.  For better or worse, the unexpected act of God, where and whenever that may be, will absolutely bring our shortcomings in life out into the open.

-Andrew Kotwicki