From the very first shots of Force Majeure, we are in an unrelievable tension. After an awkward, prolonged photo shoot of a family on holiday—Tomas, Ebba, and their children Harry and Vera—we are introduced to the ski resort they are staying at. Not with shots of the slopes, however—painting it as a snowy Arcadia—but with the machinery, the human construction, a merely functional slope guide displaying in a cheerfully bright yet authoritative, cold and electronic message, “BIENVENUE.” The hospitality is appreciated, yet somehow one is not inclined to take it to heart.
This skepticism deepens after our first glimpse inside the resort; a small boy, Harry, uncomfortably stands at a urinal surrounded by grey concrete and steel. So far, the camera has served as a questionable promotional pamphlet for our ski resort, and accidentally walked in on a little boy relieving himself to boot. He then struggles to zip up his ski suit and waddles outside. Harry is not the only one to struggle with a costume however—when he traipses to his mother and father complaining, we see Ebba talking to her friend Charlotte, who has come without her family. Ebba then says what a mother is expected to say, in a resort where one is expected to enjoy themselves: “But what about your children?” she asks, just before dragging hers along. Expectation, rigidity, machinery, false hospitality and warmth (in a freezing mountain range, not a coincidence, I am sure)—these form the visual and thematic language of the entire film, one oppressively enforced by the camera.
Movement, of both the camera and the family, is strict, rigid, and defined entirely by their confines, literal and metaphorical. (Any time Tomas or Ebba walk off the beaten trail is significant, such as when Ebba ducks into the woods to squat.) Outside, as Tomas skis, the perspective follows him, but he is following the runs, and the runs are following the path set by the resort. Ruben Ostlund, the writer and director of Force Majeure, understands this irony of the camera, as Ebba looks over photographs of her family, remarking, “The pictures always look so happy.” Then, the family places themselves on a moving track off the slope, locked in place by their skis—and we realize the camera is not only rigid for the resort. It is rigid because the family is rigid, by choice. This is highlighted in a later conversation between Ebba and Charlotte, as Charlotte calmly explains she is happy to be with people other than her husband, and he is the same, while Ebba frantically exclaims, “But aren’t you afraid of being left alone!?” As if desperately clinging onto a disconnected man is any less “alone.” The ski resort and the climate of the family are one and the same, a connection that culminates in a scene with an avalanche, on which the whole film turns.
Tomas, Ebba, and their children eat a small lunch on a patio restaurant, overlooking the picturesque mountain. He sips a beer as a small explosion bangs in the distance, a controlled avalanche to maintain the slopes. Ebba and the children become unsettled, but Tomas, ever unflappable in his exaggerated, comical male hubris, simply pulls out a camera and excitedly talks about how large the avalanche is. Until it is too large. At which point, Tomas runs, grabbing his gloves and iPhone but overlooking to grab his wife and children. The avalanche turns out to be a false alarm—the all-too-obvious crack in Tomas and Ebba’s marriage does not.
A lesser director, or a director on a different kind of film, would portray this pivotal moment with more flash, letting the emotional states of the characters dictate the shots and editing. Perhaps an opening idyllic shot of the patio, much like what sits in the film now, followed by a dramatic cut to a low angle on the avalanche, some reaction shots on Ebba and the children’s faces, and then shot-reverse-shot as Tomas runs away, looking back on his family? Yet, to do so would be to assume that impact is the point, that this event needs fluffing up. It does not. The camerawork in this scene is brilliant in its merciless objectivity, which makes Tomas’ tactless denial of running away later on even more appalling and hysterical.
Yes, hysterical. Make no mistake, despite its arthouse feel, Force Majeure is an incredibly funny film, albeit painfully so, enough to put episodes of The Office to shame. One can almost look at Force Majeure as a cynical, modern screwball comedy, a battle of the sexes. There was always an inherent tension in those old comedies, the desire to honestly portray the pitfalls between man and woman, but the need to resolve it all neatly at the end, to sweep valid concerns under the rug for the sake of a happy ending (it is no coincidence Force Majeure opens with such an arrangement so early on, before Ebba’s discontent explodes gloriously over dinner). Where the comedies of old shied away, Force Majeure stares—and cackles. Just when Tomas attempts to make peace, Ebba throws a sucker punch of her own. Their conflict spreads to their friends Mats (divorced, older) and Fanni (twenty), between whom the dispute is perhaps more cutting because of their lack of restraint compared to their married friends. Fanni, almost without thought, jokes as she and Mats go to sleep, “No wonder your wife left you!”
If there is any weakness to the film, it is how it has oddly retained some of the black-and-white moralizing of Tracy and Hepburn pictures, in the form of Tomas and Ebba’s children. They are talented child actors, a feat to be sure, but their role is disappointingly simple—to either be victims of a dysfunctional marriage, or the sole voices of reason, never more. It is them who keep the family together, but should they even be together? The film never answers this, leading to a quiet, intentionally empty-feeling ending. Where that emptiness lies, another film might insert a moral, or a lesson. Force Majeure, however, wisely keeps it open, giving us a space to reflect—for after its two hours, we most definitely need it.