Force Majeure examines how one split-second decision can shake up the trust between a married couple and the family unit as a whole. That decision also results in what may be the worst family vacation ever. An export from Sweden, the film is an exquisitely filmed, awkward, and challenging drama that doesn’t shy away from the tough issues as its situation spirals further and further out of control. It’s also an exercise in sustained silence; what’s not being said is just as important as what is.
The film opens with a family, father Tomas (Kuhnke), mother Ebba (Kongsli), and children Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren) posing for a series of pictures on the side of a ski mountain. They portray an ideal family, but that’s not the case. They’re on the ski trip because Tomas has been consumed at work and needs a break to reconnect with his family. One day, as the group is eating at one of the lodge’s restaurants, they see an avalanche take form in the distance. Tomas is sure it’s controlled and there’s nothing to worry about. As the tsunami of snow gets closer, Tomas panics, grabs his gloves and phone, and takes off. Left behind are Ebba and the kids. As it turns out the avalanche was controlled and just coated the restaurant in snow. But what does Tomas’s decision say about his priorities?
Force Majeure spends the remainder of the film exploring that very question. Ebba is devastated that he left her and the children behind. She has no issues exposing what she considers to be an act of cowardice to their friends, leading to multiple uncomfortable conversations that only get more so when Tomas declares that he did not leave the family and his and Ebba’s versions of the events don’t align. This may sound like a bunch of talking, which it is, but writer/director Ruben Östlund adds many layers and subtleties to his dialogue. He directly challenges gender roles and expectation in marriages, and whether one can even predict how they would act in a crisis.
The film is an unexpected visual feast and one of the finest clinics in mise en scène of recent memory. Östlund sets up his camera and lets the action unfold, brilliantly framed and photographed. The mountain (filmed on location in the French Alps) is a staggering background presence and the lodge provides a sterile, clinical climate that embodies the familial drama. The film features numerous long takes that are simply breathtaking, even in otherwise standard scenes such as the family riding a ski lift. It’s a stunningly beautiful film to watch.
The lead performances by Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli are the heart and soul of the movie. They feel like a married couple and sell the film’s tougher moments and themes with ease. Both are highly skilled in non-verbal communication as the camera observes their distressing silence. Östlund does write in some well-timed and executed dark humor that serves as levity while simultaneously adding to the stiffness between the characters.
Force Majeure is not an easy experience to shake and may offer more questions than resolutions. It’s about what some may consider natural human behavior, but Östlund really digs into how it can effect a marriage. The final frames can be deciphered in a number of ways, some positive, some negative. It’s a challenging, character-driven slow burn and one of 2014’s best films.
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Length: 118 Minutes
Rating: R for some language and brief nudity.
Theatrical Release: August 15, 2014 (Sweden) / October 24, 2014 (NY)
Directed by: Ruben Östlund
Written by: Ruben Östlund
Cast: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren