Force Majeure

October 18, 2014
Lisa Loven Kongsli in 'Force Majeure' (2014)
Lisa Loven Kongsli in 'Force Majeure' (2014)

Force Majeure is a clever, ironic title for a Swedish film that was originally called Turist. The legal definition of force majeure is: “an event that is the result of the elements of nature, as opposed to one caused by human behaviour”. It’s a term used in contractual law referring to a situation when one party has not been unable to fulfil their obligations because of some uncontrollable force or event. This may be a natural disaster such as an earthquake or a flood, but also war, terrorism, disease, or even an act of parliament.

The unstoppable force in Ruben Östlund’s film is an avalanche, or at least the semblance of an avalanche. The contract is the marriage contract between Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), a middle class Swedish couple, who take their two small children, Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) for a week’s holiday at a ski resort in France.

The movie begins with a ‘happy families’ moment that can only seem ominous, as a photographer gets the group to pose in their ski gear. The trip to the hotel is detailed with precise, deadpan accuracy. We hear every click of boot on metal, and wait while Harry takes a pee. It’s like watching a reality TV video, as events proceed in relative silence, punctuated by sudden, dramatic bursts of Vivaldi’s Winter from The Four Seasons.

Nothing much happens until day two when the family sit down to enjoy lunch on the balcony of a resort restaurant. It’s a clear, sunny day, and they watch in fascination as a controlled avalanche begins to roll slowly down a hillside. As it gets closer this tide of snow becomes increasingly menacing. At the last moment panic sets in. Restaurant guests try to flee while the frame is engulfed in a white cloud. The snow settles and we realise it was all a false alarm. Ebba and the kids emerge from under the table but Tomas is nowhere to be seen. After a minute or so he returns to the table.

It’s the turning point in the film, and in Tomas and Ebba’s relationship. When disaster loomed the patriarch grabbed his mobile phone and fled, leaving wife and children to fend for themselves. The rest of the movie works through the tortuous consequences of this spontaneous act.

While Tomas behaves as if nothing has happened, Ebba takes a passive-aggressive approach, and the children sulk angrily. Although he is beginning to feel like a pariah in the family Tomas denies any wrongdoing. When Ebba raises the issue at a dinner with two other guests, he evinces a completely different interpretation. His persistent denials drive Edda to the edge – the incident has become an obsession, a defining moment in their marriage.

She can’t get over the realisation that her first instinct was to protect her children, but Tomas opted for self-preservation. She feels as if she has been living under false pretences, married to a man who thinks only of himself. For Tomas the incident is a blow to his masculine pride, as he is forced to confront his own cowardice and selfishness.

That’s virtually all the action in a story that devolves into a study of the slow disintegration of a relationship, as Tomas loses all semblance of self-respect. Östlund’s most acute observation is that such psychodramas seem to be contagious. Having spent a painful evening with Tomas and Ebba, another couple find themselves drawn into the same – albeit hypothetical – battle. The sense of nagging insecurity becomes maddening and claustrophobic, set against the clean, blank backdrop of the ski slopes.

Östlund keeps a distance from the arguments as Tomas and Ebba sink into their private, introspective hells. For the viewer it induces that squirming feeling that arises when one sees people embarrassing themselves in public. It’s like eavesdropping on conversations which keep scratching away at the same wound – and like most discussions about other people’s relationships there comes a point when boredom and irritation set in. Östlund appears to recognise this and takes a sadistic pleasure in dragging out these moments beyond any comfortable limit. His ending is suitably ambiguous, not letting us decide whether Tomas is headed for redemption or disaster.

We can take heart from the thought that Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973), which Clive James memorably dubbed, “The Higher Trash”, clocked in at almost five weary hours. Force Majeure runs at a mere two hours – it only feels like five.

Force Majeure
Written & directed by Ruben Östlund
Starring Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius
Sweden/Denmark/Norway, rated M, 118 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 18th October, 2014.

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