Force Majeure

Posted by Joel Copling on November 6, 2014

Their marriage is already on rocky foundation when the physical manifestation of impending, possible dissolution has its say. The husband has been unfaithful in the past, a truth he voices during an emotional breakdown late in the film. The wife, understandably, has already had a difficult time reconciling this behavior with the husband to whom she devoted her love in sickness and in health. "Force Majeure" is not the story of his infidelity, but it warrants mentioning that this is an element at play behind the eyes of the actors in these lead roles. Director Ruben Ostlund's screenplay wisely does not dwell on it, even it is mentioned (Any past coping on the wife's part is entirely conveyed by the actress's eyes--a strength and a challenge, certainly).

And then the avalanche happens. I mean "avalanche" literally, because there they are, sitting at an outside table of a restaurant in the ski resort at which they are currently vacationing, when a wall of snow envelops the restaurant. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), the husband, gets the heck out of Dodge. Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), the wife, protects their children, Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren). The debate of perception begins to crack the happy facade of their marriage: Ebba sees the events as we do, with Tomas packing up the camera and iPhone and running away; Tomas insists that this isn't what happened, but his deflection of offering his own perspective is pretty telling that he's simply in denial.

Put bluntly, "Force Majeure" is a study of this kind of gender-role divide, and no more so than during a dinner party with fellow skiers Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and Fanny (Fanni Metelius). The jovial affair slowly becomes one in which Ebba, having suffered a nervous breakdown because of her husband's seeming cowardice, burdens the guests with her story (She had already done this with a pair of other tourists played by Brady Corbet and Karin Myrenberg Faber, and it had sparked an argument). In an interesting decision from Ostlund as a screenwriter (and one that pays off magnificently in the hands of supporting performers who could have been sidelined and inconsequential and are not), the film breaks off to watch as Mats and Fanny discuss what each other would have done in the same situation. A strength of Ostlund's is to put his audience through the same wringer.

The performances are, in a word, magnificent. Tomas puts up a face as brave as it is obviously fake, and Kuhnke is superb at conveying the man's attitude of idealistic, patriarchal duty. There is a vulnerability here that later corrodes to a depleted sense of self-esteem and worth that is just simply devastating. His equal is Kongsli, whose Ebba loses all faith that she knows her husband as well as she thought. The actress is excellent at conveying a sense of betrayal and, later, emptiness, which later spiral toward detachment. Clara and Vincent Wettergren are both utter naturals, terrific child performers who prove that it would be hard to determine that this isn't a real family simply captured on camera.

The film is also a visually resplendent affair (The thought of moving immediately to the French Alps, in which the film is set, is not an unwarranted one), with Ostlund and cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel's camera winding their way through the transcendent mountain scenery in a series of delirious long takes that add up to possibly the year's best-looking film. Of course, that would be style over substance, if the substance in question was not so evident, and this is a film of dense effect. "Force Majeure" is an empathetic and greatly moving study of a particularly unheroic act and from which gender that should come. Sometimes, the answer is not so easy when it put under a microscope. "Playing the hero" might sometimes be as simple as saving one's own neck for those with a survivalist's mentality.

Film Information

Johannes Kuhnke (Tomas), Lisa Loven Kongsli (Ebba), Kristofer Hivju (Mats), Fanni Metelius (Fanny), Clara Wettergren (Vera), Vincent Wettergren (Harry), Brady Corbet (Brady), Karin Myrenberg Faber (Charlotte).

Directed and written by Ruben Ostlund.

Rated R (language, brief nudity).

118 minutes.

Released in select cities on October 24, 2014.