Can a brief, split-second decision in the face of imminent danger say more about you than an entire lifetime? On a skiing holiday in the Alps, a Swedish family’s entire dynamic is shaken and rocked when the father, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), commits an act of cowardice during an avalanche one afternoon.
Force Majeure wrestles with the idea of gender roles, especially that of pride and male ego. The event leaves Tomas forever attempting to reconcile his own sense of masculinity – in one heartbreaking scene in which he scourges himself in front of his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), Tomas laments: ‘I hate him so damn much. I can’t live with him any longer […] I’m a victim of my own instincts!’
After a particularly awkward and comical dinner party in which another couple, Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and Fanni (Fanni Metelius), are let in on Tomas and Ebba’s situation, the couple spend the night debating themselves into a hypothetical tangle of what-ifs, ending in Mats questioning his own bravery while Fanni pleads for him to give his body and ego a rest with some sleep.
The film begins to stumble with the introduction of Mats and Fanni (who do act their parts well). Ruben Östlund does not commit to them enough to follow their story thoroughly which makes their cameo appearances seem like a strained reminder that Östlund would like the viewer to engage in similar debates after the credits, too.
Force Majeure is at its weakest once its subtext comes to the fore. The second half of the film is an on-the-nose search for masculinity: at one point Tomas stumbles through a nightclub full of topless men literally roaring at each other. In another stodgy scene, Tomas and Mats are humiliated in a case of mistaken identity involving an attractive woman at the ski resort. The interesting on-screen dynamic between the disillusioned husband and wife is pushed to the side to the film’s detriment.
The Alps is an appropriate setting and it is confidently shot with spectacular widescreen landscapes and some fantastic skiing sequences which are also an important nod to the characters themselves. Like the mountain which has its trodden, snowy landscape re-blanketed every night, Tomas and his family, on the surface, are a perfect family unit that, when prodded enough, are just as liable to disaster as anybody else – a custodian often stands witness to the couple’s furtive late night arguments in the hotel corridor.
In a notable scene, Ebba is dumbfounded by a middle-aged woman involved in a holiday dalliance with a younger man despite having a husband and children – the former, she claims, is happy with the arrangement. It’s a lifestyle a million miles away from Ebba’s picture book set-up. After further questioning, Ebba’s new friend suggests that the lavish, middle-class resort is not the appropriate place to discuss her infidelities.
In many ways, the notion of societal expectations and perceived gender roles within the family is a force majeure in itself. This weighs tremendously on Tomas’s shoulders and, like the controlled avalanches that take place in the luxury retreat, it sweeps indomitably through all who stand in the way. The main characters, by the end, leave their idyllic alpine setting with a clearer idea of who they really are, which for some is more frightening than any natural disaster. (6)