Should we be defined by the totality of our actions, or by a random mistake we make in a moment of panic? Are our words or our deeds more important? And once we have an impression of our partner, how troubling is it when that image changes in an instant? These questions eat away at the viewer while watching Force Majeure, a hit at this May’s Cannes Film Festival and Sweden’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The delicate bonds that hold together marriages and families are ripped apart in this character study-cum-dark comedy. It’s hard to laugh too hard at these people’s existential peril, though: We recognize how easy it would be for any of us to end up in their unenviable positions.
Written and directed by Ruben Östlund (Play), Force Majeure stars Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli as Tomas and Ebba, a happily married couple on a skiing vacation with their impossibly cute little kids (Clara Wettergren and Vincent Wettergren). Smiling on the slopes or blissfully dozing in the same bed together, this family doesn’t have a care in the world, and if Force Majeure were a horror movie it’d be around this time that the characters’ cellphones would stop working and a terrifying monster would come down the mountain to try to devour them. But the horror Östlund has in store for them is more relatable and insidious.
While dining at an open-air café at the ski resort, Tomas and his family get a front row seat for what’s known as a controlled avalanche: a mini-avalanche triggered by well-placed explosives set by local officials so as to prevent the risk of a far more dangerous avalanche in the near future. But while observing the controlled avalanche, Tomas, Ebba and the kids become concerned that the rapidly descending snow will hit their vulnerable vantage point. As the avalanche comes worryingly close to their table, Ebba dives to protect the children—while Tomas makes a run for it.
Nobody gets hurt, but everything changes in that moment. The different actions of the two parents sets in motion Force Majeure’s central drama. Suddenly, what we’ve seen—a happy family enjoying their vacation—is distorted. A small but perceptible rift begins to grow between Ebba and Tomas. The children, picking up on the tension, worry that their folks are going to get divorced. And because Östlund intentionally leaves the family’s backstory before their arrival on the mountain vague, we’re suddenly left struggling to find our bearings. Is Ebba’s disgust with Tomas based on earlier, unspoken events? Or is it simply his split-second reaction to the oncoming avalanche that’s triggered this stark change in her behavior?
Östlund won’t say, which is Force Majeure’s niggling, provocative point. A movie about the uncertainty of perception, Force Majeure presents its scenes without tipping its hand to how we should feel about them. (Even the cataclysmic avalanche, brilliantly rendered with the help of CG, offers just another wiggle room for interpretation. Did Tomas dash for the exit because he assumed his kids and wife would follow right behind him? And, even if that’s the case, is that enough not to make him seem like a selfish coward?) Östlund’s blond cast members, at first a symbol of health and prosperity, suddenly look like shallow, spoiled inhabitants of a soulless upper class. Was their earlier picture-perfect visage the truth? Or is this ugly new reality a more accurate portrait of their home life?
With echoes of Contempt (as well as Julia Loktev’s 2011 drama The Loneliest Planet, about an amorous couple whose relationship is threatened by the man’s thoughtless split-second decision), Force Majeure is ripe with guilt, shame and ridicule. With a film so swept up in mystery, it’s crucial that the actors render their characters with a certain amount of ambiguity, leaving in blank spaces for the audience to fill in with their own secret anxieties and experiences. Loven Kongsli slowly reveals Ebba’s quiet resentment, the roots of which are slow to be revealed. (And even when they are, there’s no clear indication that they are indeed what made Ebba so angry in the first place.) Meanwhile, Bah Kuhnke plays Tomas as an almost pathetically tragic figure whose masculine pride has been perhaps irredeemably punctured. Like the men of Contempt and The Loneliest Planet, Tomas has lost the gender-imbalance upper hand, and the character stews in his emasculating failure, his temporary lack of judgment either a symbol of a deep character flaw or merely a poor decision at a most inopportune time. Still, Bah Kuhnke makes him sympathetic.
Or does he? After seeing Force Majeure, I’ve had a few discussions with others who interpret Tomas and his actions differently than I do. And what’s striking is that, in these differing opinions, perhaps some of our own biases about men, women, families and the rich come trickling out. The events depicted in Force Majeure prove to be a Rorschach test for the characters, and also for us. Personally, I probably feel worse for Tomas than most will: I’d hate to be in the position of being judged for one hasty choice. As for the ending, which is filled with its own ambiguities, I prefer letting it be an unanswerable mystery. As with much of Force Majeure, it’s open to interpretation, like so many families whose lives we can’t begin to understand from the outside.
Director: Ruben Östlund
Writer: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius
Release Date: Oct. 24, 2014
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.