REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
The Swedish film, “Force Majeure,” takes its name from a legal term of art. The phrase refers to an act of God or other extenuating circumstances, which release parties from their responsibilities under an extant contract. Like many of this film’s other aspects, the title represents a carefully-constructed ambiguity, which is subject to multiple interpretations.
“Force Majeure” focuses on a Swedish family, who go to a posh French ski resort for a week-long vacation. The quartet consists of successful businessman, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his attractive wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and two grade school children, Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren). Everything seems placid within the family. Early on, we witness all four of them sleeping together contentedly in a king-sized bed. As if to stress how picture-perfect the family is, a resort photographer takes numerous glossy shots of them in a permutation of poses.
On the second day of the vacation, the family is enjoying an outdoor lunch, while savoring the gorgeous mountainside scenery. The resort’s operators have intentionally triggered a controlled avalanche. It is a stunning sight to behold. However as the avalanche cascades down the mountainside, the patrons grow alarmed. It seems as if the resort operators have miscalculated and that the avalanche will bury them alive. Tomas attempts to becalm his agitated children. In reference to the resort operators, he insists, “They know what they’re doing.”
However, as the avalanche approaches more closely, Tomas’ confidence abruptly evaporates. The panic-stricken patriarch abruptly bolts from the table, pushing other fleeing vacationers out of his way. He abandons his terrified wife and children behind.
In a moment when disaster seemed imminent, Tomas selfishly abnegated his putative role as the family’s protector in favor of his own survival. Ultimately, the brunt of the avalanche stops short of the resort, resulting in its patrons being engulfed in nothing more than a blinding billow of snow dust. Tomas returns to the table, acting as if nothing untoward has happened. Although they do not articulate their emotions, it is clear that Tomas’ wife and children are deeply disturbed by his craven act of cowardice. In a split second, the family’s blissful serenity has been shattered.
Stung by her sense of having been betrayed and seeking to resolve the underlying conflict, Ebba repeatedly attempts to extract an apology from her husband. However, Tomas adamantly denies that he fled the table. According to him, he and Ebba simply have different viewpoints on what transpired. Tomas seems genuinely convinced of his subjective perception. Furthermore, he contends that since no one in the family was hurt, there is no need to further belabor the matter. Does he really believe his version of what transpired or is he simply attempting to save face?
Suppressed rage roils beneath the surface. Ebba is clearly alienated by Tomas’s act of cowardice and in particular, his distorted account of events. Vera and Harry are similarly consumed by their own sense of betrayal. The family’s cohesion is now disrupted. However, they have five days left on their scheduled vacation.
Meanwhile, Ebba meets a fellow mom, who is on vacation by herself, emancipated from her customary maternal duties. While there, she is enjoying the modus vivendi of a swinging single. Ebba is taken aback that the woman is so matter of fact about her adulterous participation in a litany of one-night stands. It poses a challenge to Ebba’s decidedly more traditional view of appropriate behavior for a married mother.
Tomas’ long-time friend, Mats (Kristofer Hivju, Tormund Giantsbane from “Game of Thrones”) and his considerably younger, twenty-something girlfriend, Fanni (Fanni Metelius), show up at the resort. They join Tomas and Ebba for a dinner. Still simmering with resentment, Ebba can’t resist recounting Tomas’ recent act of cowardice. Mats and Fanni are taken aback that they have been immersed into this unexpected family melodrama. Mats, who looks every bit like the archetypal image of a strapping, red-bearded Viking warrior, tries to rationalize Tomas’ behavior. Mats opines that in the face of danger, we have a primordial instinctual impulse to survive. He insists that no one can know for sure how they will react in such circumstances.
Mats and Fanny depart the acrimonious dinner and head for an elevator. While waiting, Fanny compares her paramour unfavorably to one of her peers. Mats disdainfully dismisses the lad in question as a pathetic wimp. Fanni’s chance remark hurts Mats’ pride and an escalating dispute ensues between them. As the couple squabbles, it triggers a series of laugh out loud moments. These intrinsically funny exchanges artfully offer respite from the film’s mounting tension.
Late in the film, there is a scene that echoes the peril of the early avalanche scene. Navigated by an inept driver, a busload full of terrified tourists careens erratically as it travels down a serpentine mountain road.
In his fourth feature film, screenwriter/director, Ruben Östlund, has crafted a carefully-observed gem. He efficaciously explores the notion of how an isolated act of cowardice can irrevocably redefine a man. The theme was previously limned in “The Macomber Affair,” inspired by Ernest Hemmingway’s short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” then “Lord Jim,” an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel of the same name. More recently, the 2011 film, “The Loneliest Planet,” depicted an affianced couple, who experience an unfortunate incident while backpacking in the Caucasus Mountains.
Östlund puts his own spin on the subject matter. He knowingly places the notion of gender role expectations into a broader context of the human condition during the post-modernist era.
Östlund maintains excellent pacing throughout the film. Along the way, he provides some delicious parenthetical flourishes. Look for a custodial worker, who recurrently shows up, like an ominous version of Zelig. A recurrent series of vignettes depict the family’s practice of assembling each morning to use their personal electric toothbrushes in synchrony. The daily ritual persists even though the fabric of family cohesion has been shredded apart. In another scene, a woman relays a coquettish message from her gal pal. She advises Tomas that her sidekick considers him to be the most attractive man in the bar. Moments later, the woman returns to recant the misrelayed message. Apologizing profusely, the woman indicates that she had misunderstood who her friend had targeted to be the recipient of the seductive entreaty.
The film comes replete with fine casting and acting by its ensemble cast. The eye-popping cinematography of Frederik Wenzel captures both the beauty and danger of nature. Ola Fløttum contributes a score, which parallels the shifting mood of the film.
The excellence of “Force Majeure” has been recognized, It competed at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where it won one of the Jury Prizes. The vehicle has also been selected as Sweden’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the upcoming 87th Academy Awards.
“Force Majeure” is a searing family drama, which offers considerable fodder for reflection.
“Force Majeure” ***1/2 R (for some language and brief nudity) 118 minutes
Film critic Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.