Forced to Action, by Scott Nye
Force Majeure has the sort of perfection of internal rhythm that at once negates the possibility of permanently-damaging conflict while simultaneously heightening its danger. The threat of some force destabilizing this perfect world order seems all the more terrifying because we come to take so much for granted. It’s a movie about how, in spite of this great age of reason and all the modern fortifications that surround us, we still fear things outside of reason. And we don’t always react in ways that make us, or our loved ones, proud.
Tomas (Johannes Kunke) certainly won’t be winning any medals of valor. He has taken five days away from his unspecified, but evidently too-demanding, job to ski with his family. Wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and kids Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren) all seem overjoyed with his attentiveness, despite the occasional smartphone interruption. A photographer grabs them for a shoot, to which they begrudgingly agree, but sure enough, the results are too perfect to resist paying for. They ski in the morning, collapse in the late afternoon, and dine in the evening. It’d be the ideal vacation, until disaster strikes.
Time after time, writer/director Ruben Östlund introduces something that seems terribly destructive, only to reveal it to be something quite ordinary. Giant canons on snow-covered cliffs are just mechanisms to carefully manage avalanches. Ski lifts sound as though they’re about to collapse, when they’re just transitioning to a new section of wire. A UFO-like device hovering over a quiet ski resort is just a child’s toy. Later, it will seem to be a monster. Östlund will always present the potential threat as an abstract, usually with tremendous distance, so the toy and the town appear of equal size or the canons will seem to be ruinous storms. He’ll then pan slightly, or cut to a different angle, suggesting the proper vantage point or a different approach entirely will cause one to see the matter for what it is.
So when an avalanche gets a little out of control, and Tomas doesn’t quite react in a way befitting the classical ideal of the man of the house, we understand his fear, even as we may laugh at the way that fear is expressed. Östlund’s comedic sense is impeccable, allowing a scene to sit in deeply uncomfortable embarrassment (which the cast – Kunke in particular – is very game to play) for quite awhile, only to end on a note that twists it in just the right comedic tone. Ebba begging a voyeuristic janitor to let she and Tomas back into their room as the latter weeps in the hallway; another couple promising to go to bed after a big fight, only for Östlund to cut to them arguing about it hours later. The film evinces a real sense of the ways couples let small offenses drive them further apart, all the while refusing to talk about what’s actually bothering them. It’s all posturing and suggestion, expecting the other person to understand and agree simply by an expression.
Tackling the unrealistic, gendered expectations men and women place on one another in a sharply comedic fashion, Östlund has crafted one of the most incisive portraits of marriage in a year that’s been fraught with them. But where Gone Girl, Only Lovers Left Alive, and The One I Love couched their portraits in genre frameworks, Force Majeure is a somewhat simpler, but more direct affair. Yet Östlund’s manner of storytelling keeps us just as off-balance as those more obviously thrilling features, creating suspense in the most mundane of circumstances and dispelling it just as quickly. What better narrative strategy for marriage than a series of seemingly-catastrophic events that eventually smooth themselves out?