Force Majeure

Sweden’s official submission for best foreign language film at this year’s Oscars is a real doozie.

A big thanks to Ottawa’s Bytowne Cinemas for bringing it here. This film is not an easy one to catch, but worth every effort.

A beautiful blonde family is on a ritzy, picturesque ski vacation in the French Alps. The workaholic father Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) is taking some much-needed “family time” – that is, until the second day, when an avalanche threatens the family and he saves his own hide, leaving his wife and kids for dead. Luckily, the avalanche was controlled and everyone’s fine – well, everyone’s uninjured. Physically uninjured. But everyone’s hurt.

This film is a fascinating look at what happens to this family now that it’s been confronted with an awful truth. What are these primal instincts? Can we blame them for our actions? Can we count on them? Who can we count on?

After the movie, a small group of Assholes met up at Maxwell’s Bistro on Elgin to debrief, and boy did we need it. The director, Ruben Östlund, is a master at manipulating tension. The fallout unfolds slowly. He uses blank spaces to let the tension mount. It sometimes feels pressurized, unbearable. But every uncomfortable scene is worthy of comment. Together they piece together a larger portrait of a relationship that is being redefined quickly.

What happens when your spouse lets you down so profoundly? What happens when you let yourself down, when you fail to live up to your own values? Can a relationship really be measured by a split-second decision?force

The film holds a mirror up to our own relationships, and we ask ourselves what we would have done. And if we’re asking honestly (because of course in our guts we all hope we’d do the right thing) we have to wonder: at our most base self, our most primal self, are we heroes, or are we survivalists?

There are flaws to this movie. The children, though clearly shaken and probably scarred, are hardly dealt with. They intuit that something is wrong with the family unit, and they want to comfort and protect their father from whatever he’s going through. But their own confusion and anger is never given a voice. Focus remains on the couple, and we are constantly reminded of just how intimate our eavesdropping is, although the wife, Ebba, ( Lisa Loven Kongsli) seems to find it easier to voice her disbelief and criticism in public rather than in private.

It’s awkward. Oh man is it awkward. Imagine being at this dinner party. Your friend of many years, it turns out, is a huge coward who saved himself and abandoned his children for dead. You feel sorry for him. Do you comfort him? Comfort her? Make excuses for him? Identify with him? Question your own motives?

This movie is unafraid. It’s not pretty, but we aren’t allowed to look away. It’s not enough just to break the marriage open, now we have to go inside and poke around. It’s terribly invasive. It’s provoking. It’s exactly the kind of movie I adore – one that makes me question everything.

Because whether we collectively condemn or forgive Tomas, our judgments are based on what, exactly? Gender stereotypes? Expectations of filial duty? Idealization of romantic love? Physical bravery? Basic instincts?

This movie is a much better look, psychologically, into the makeup of a marriage than Gone Girl. The characters are more relatable. But that’s also why it’s so much more difficult to sit through. It’s not just a movie. It’s a mirror.

 

 

(I hope many of you get the chance to go see it, and I hope you all come back here to chat about it in the comments. If you haven’t seen it, beware – comments may contain spoilers.)

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15 thoughts on “Force Majeure

  1. Jay Post author

    What role does “women and children first” have in modern day society, if any? Actually, it’s a nice saying, but it’s always been rather meaningless. Even in situations where it was suggested – like the Titanic, for example – it was the exception rather than the rule. Women and children died disproportionately. So maybe the instinct to survive always kicks in, and men can usually overpower both. (Certainly in the movie, Tomas wrenches people out of his way, and leaps over his own son). Recently on a cruise we had to “drill” the evacuation procedures and it was “save the vulnerable first” – children, the elderly, the disabled. Although doesn’t each boat need at least one able-bodied person to ensure its survival?

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  2. Jay Post author

    In Force Majeure, one of the family friends, caught in this awkward crossfire, suggests that maybe this situation was akin to an airplane crash, where the flight attendants remind parents that they must first put on their own masks in order to stay conscious enough to then help their children. Perhaps, the friend suggests, Tomas was simply fleeing in order to save himself in order to come back and dig his family out later?
    Everyone in the movie knows this is not the case, but could this be a valid point?

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  5. Chad

    I went into the theater knowing nothing about this film and greatly enjoyed it. My girlfriend picked it out.

    Part way through the movie, Ebba has a conversation with a woman she met during check-in at the hotel’s front desk. This is after Ebba and Tomas have dinner with her and a guy she picked up the previous day – a guy we can presume she’s sleeping with. Now it comes up in the conversation with Ebba that this woman has a husband and children (not on vacation) and is quite happy in her marriage — an open one, where both she and her husband are free to take on additional lovers as they see fit. So I was wondering where this might be going, plot-wise…but of course the director leaves this avenue tantalizingly un-explored. I’m still puzzling over what his intent was in the scene’s inclusion.

    And I say ‘tantalizing un-explored’ because I saw this movie not with my wife, but my girlfriend. My wife also just so happens to be dating my girlfriend’s husband. But the movie turns out to not be about THAT!

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  6. Jay Post author

    I think the other woman explained that her open relationship(s) made her happy, and that it was healthy for her not to have her family be the sole focus of her self esteem. For Ebba, the (monogamous) family unit has been her whole world, and now that she wonders who her husband is, and what the family means to him, she must also ask herself who she is. That was my take, at least.

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  7. Chad

    I think your take is an accurate one. It did seem that presenting an example of a happily open marriage was an interesting selection (on the writer’s part) to raise questions regarding assumptions of marital commitment and identity — other situation vehicles could’ve achieved something similar, I would think. Instead, this uncommon arrangement was deliberately selected. I merely note that it was an interesting and slightly provocative twist; when it came up, I was wondering if it was a set-up for either a baring of outside desires or a cheating scenario, or possibly preaching from the writer’s personal life. It’s far more interesting that it remained in the swirl of Ebba’s mental-space.

    In my experience and FWIW, the writer’s dialogue for that woman adequately captured the honest commitment and fidelity of many who are in open and/or polyamorous marriages. She was presented as thoughtful and honest, and Ebba raised the standard misgivings and reactions that tend to be expressed.

    Of course, the movie also caused me to review my mental banks on how I’ve reacted in dangerous situations in the past, and to review ways that I have or haven’t met the role expectations (overt or otherwise) for myself and for others.

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  8. Jay Post author

    You’re right, there are many other scenarios that could have accomplished the same thing. So why deliberately choose the open-relationship? It was provocative, perhaps to the audience, but definitely to Ebba, who became flustered and defensive. In fact, the other woman had to calm her down, saying something like “this is not the time or place to discuss this” – funny because Ebba obviously doesn’t care for about discretion or appropriateness – but I think she also knew there was no “winning.” No matter how thoughfully she responded to Ebba, Ebba’s gut reaction was to be dismissive or defensive about it, probably because she’s only got one romantic relationship, and when it’s on the rocks, her whole life is on the rocks.
    I felt that during the hallway scene when Tomas the husband breaks down crying in huge sobs, he apologizes for failing his family in numerous other ways, including cheating in games against his children, and “infidelity” – so is that why Ebba is so sensitive to the concept of polyamoury?

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    1. Chad

      Well it would appear to be a clue, eh? I’m certainly primed to watch the movie again, for this reason and others.

      Tomas’ friend seems to rise to the occasion during the bus egress scene, taking charge and facilitating an organized exit. We’re left wondering whether he would’ve done the same were his friend’s cowardice not so fresh in his mind, combined with his girlfriend’s doubts about his “manliness.” In any event, Ebba asks him to pick up and carry the tired daughter – her cavewoman instincts apparently idenifying him as a Capable Male.
      Something tells me that Ebba and Tomas still have a lot of unpacking to do…

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  9. Jay Post author

    Yes, exactly!
    As Ebba’s anxiety increased on the bus, her husband did little\nothing to help or to calm her. I definitely thought it was telling that she asked the friend to carry the child, and I like your explanation that she’s identified him as the alpha. That rings true. I absolutely did wonder whether he would have sprung to action in quite the same way had all this not been so fresh. Either way, I have serious doubts about E+T lasting very long once home.

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  10. Chad

    The ordeal in the fog — let’s discuss:
    In the deteriorating weather it was a genuinely dangerous situation (skiing in featureless lighting, without even the benefit of trees for orientation) for anyone, but kids especially, and he walks away from them to…what? Go through the staged motions of a wife-rescue to appear to be a hero to his kids again? Why would she assent to that? – plus she voiced her misgivings to skiing in the fog earlier. But let’s say she’s decided for herself that the kids should see their father’s renewed role as a protector. His leaving them, and potentially losing them in the fog, is wouldn’t quite seem to be ‘on message.’ And then Ebba undermines her husband’s apparent “heroism” by not actually being hurt and hiking away to retrieve her skis. Strange.

    This would seem to parallel her earlier agreement to interpret the avalanche situation according to her husband’s abridged recollection, and then (rightfully) undermining that fable with a version more closely aligned with the actual facts of the situation.

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    1. Jay Post author

      The fog bit made me really mad.
      It was dangerous and stupid. Clearly Tomas was asking his family to trust him again but he didn’t deserve it, and that situation was just plain bad.
      I immediately felt that the wife was faking her injury (although not all of us Assholes agreed at first) – but I wasn’t sure if she was doing it to restore her husband’s faith in himself as capable hero, or if she was doing it for her children’s benefit, or maybe even to reassure herself that given a second chance, he could pick her.
      I hated that he left his children alone. I felt like the movie didn’t give them enough of a voice, but to do this to them, to put them in a dangerous situation and then to leave them completely alone, wondering if anyone would or even could come back…it would have been terrifying and re-victimizing for them to go through. So I was mad at both parents for this little pantomime and it obviously didn’t help put the family back on better footing.

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