”Force Majeure,” a joint Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and French foreign film, is one of the front-runners for an Oscar nod in the Best Foreign Film category this year. Directed by Ruben Ostlund (“Play”), the movie is the story of a family of four that goes on holiday to a ritzy ski resort (Les Arcs in the French Alps, but augmented cinematically), only to find that, just as skiing itself can be a dangerous sport, relationships within a family unit can be unpredictable and risky.
The film covers five days with Tomas (Johanne Kunke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongslo) and their two children, a small boy Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and his older sister Vera (Clara Wettergren).
There are also a few minor characters who enter the drama, including an old buddy of Tomas’, Matts (Kristofer Hivju), a divorced man in his forties vacationing with his twenty-year-old girlfriend, and a free-spirited married woman who expresses little concern for traditional convention(s).
The turning point of the film occurs when the family is seated at an outside restaurant and a “controlled avalanche” becomes not-so-controlled. All those who had been dining suddenly flee for their lives. Tomas, in particular, grabs his cell phone and his gloves and hot-foots it away from the table, leaving Ebba, his wife, to grab both children and pray.
As it turns out, the avalanche does not reach the chalet and Tomas returns to the table to rejoin a not-very-happy wife who comments later in the film that Tomas is “always running away from” his wife and children. The white fog from the near avalanche is as eerie as in movies like “The Fog” and, later, during a ski excursion on their final day (Sisla Dagen/Final Day), it also appears to hold all sorts of dangers for the family of four, but their patriarch insists that he will lead the way and all will be well as they ski down a slope where they can barely see their hand in front of their face.
Tomas—not unlike other men in real life—won’t admit what has occurred.
Ebba says, “It’s so weird that you won’t admit what happened.”
Tomas responds, “I want us to share the same view.” He also expresses the opinion that he wants to “put it all behind us,” which seems quite convenient, since he has come off as a bit of a cad. This “let’s sweep it under the rug and forgetaboutit” attitude is prevalent in many marriages, whether short-term or long-term, and the attitude never fails to breed resentment when it surfaces. In fact, when a situation cannot be discussed, openly and candidly, [but must simply be “forgotten about”,] for many personalities (like Ebba’s), the effect is to create a situation that cannot help but erode the relationship, whether that relationship is a marriage or simply a friendship. Some of us need to get things out in the open and talk about them. Others—especially if the situation might reflect poorly on them—-refuse to talk about it. That is part of the foundation on which this film’s issues rest.
The title “Force Majeure” comes from a legal term where an unforeseen event prevents a contract from being fulfilled.
Ebba cannot seem to put the frightening ordeal out of her mind. In fact, she seems to be experiencing a bit of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), reliving the event for Matts and his young girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius) and the woman traveling alone who discussed her more “open marriage” philosophy and tells Ebba that she purposely left her kids home with their father as a welcome vacation from them.
“They need therapy,” says Matts to Fanny after Ebba shows a video of the event that puts the lie to Tomas’ tendency to minimize the event and dismiss it as a “force majeure.” This former buddy of Tomas’ even offers an extremely lame excuse for why Tomas might have run away, saying, “The enemy is this image we have of heroes” and suggesting an alibi along the lines of: “You were going to save yourself to dig them out…right?”
When Ebba trots out the story of Tomas defection under stress, Tomas says, “I don’t share that interpretation of events,” and adds, to his upset wife, “You’re entitled to your own interpretation.”
This inability to admit the truth nearly drives Ebba to distraction When Tomas finally does break down and admit that he is “a bloody victim of my own instincts,” telling Ebba that he hates his weaknesses, he has a near-breakdown. That wakes the children and becomes a scene requiring the wife (Ebba) to act as the steadying hub of the group, calming everyone down. She seems “the strong one.”
In a later skiing scene, Tomas has his chance at redemption when Ebba must be carried to safety. Matts also gets an opportunity to act responsibly and maturely in a scene on a bus being driven rather recklessly, when he instructs the panicked riders to exit in an orderly manner.
It was interesting to me that the only person who stayed on the bus was the risk-taking married wife and mother involved in a dalliance with another single tourist. She refused to consider herself a “bad” mother or wife because she was vacationing without her children and not adhering to society’s marital norms. She was the only one of those on the bus who toughed out the driver’s incompetence and took the risk (and, as a result, didn’t end up having to walk halfway down a mountainside when Ebba panicked and insisted that the bus driver let them all out).
It seemed that Ebba was being depicted, at this point, as being a bit of a ninny who over-reacted to things. I wondered how the film-maker could have it both ways: either she is the strong center of the family hierarchy or she is a personality who panics at the merest hint of danger.
Which is it, for Ebba?
The avalanche is considered a metaphor for small situations that snowball out of control. There have been comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 “Scenes from a Marriage.” Ostlund won a Jury Prize at Cannes. “Entertainment Weekly” in its October 31st issue has termed it “a quietly devastating tinderbox psychodrama.”
The film is a comment on marriage, in general, since Ebba is heard talking to a girlfriend on the phone. Her comment is: “You’ve been in a relationship for five years and you want to fool around. I understand.”
So, to sum up, the film confirms the view that women, almost in a matriarchal fashion, hold a family together, but hope for more support from the men in their lives (who often behave like overgrown children). These scenes were both psychologically revealing and humorous, as a resort employee has occasion to watch Tomas losing it.
It also gave us a sad glimpse into the psyches of small children who think their parents might be going to split. Both children are shown listening to their parents arguing and crying. Little Harry admits aloud that he is afraid his parents are going to get divorced.
The movie also made a good point about how, in a crisis, we sometimes do not behave as admirably as heroes do in the movies. The boredom of marriage, with its repetitiveness and the humdrum chores that accompany it, is aptly portrayed, both in scenes where the youngest child, Harry, is acting “owly” and in scenes involving preparation for bedtime. The bloom is off the rose. This is a family that must share space (in one case, they are all shown in the same bed) and, while there are rewards to having a family unit, those rewards do not come without sacrifice. The randy behavior of Matts and Fanny is in stark contrast to the ho-hum nature of Tomas and Ebba.
The movie, which has beautiful photography by Fredrik Wenzel and Fred Arne Wergeland using an ARRI Alexa, had a great message for all partners, whether male or female, who are in a long-term (or short-term) relationship: “Admit what you did when you’re wrong.” It is thought-provoking and both humorous and serious. Only the ending proved anti-climactic and was a bit of a let-down, but this solid, provocative film with solid performances from all, will give movie-goers much to ponder.