Dir: Ruben Östlund
TriArt Film, 2014, Sweden
Starring: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli
Avalanches. Crying men. Domestic madness.
Thinking back to the beginning of Ruben Östlund’s excellent Force Majeure, it’s easy to forget that the central family’s behaviour is at first fairly reasonable (at least in comparison to the hysteria that follows). By the time the movie’s over, you’ve witnessed so many overreactions to one single chance occurrence that you’re taken aback by the sheer cruelty of it all, so much so that you can barely remember a time when this Swedish nuclear family could actually tolerate one another. But there’s something convincingly lifelike about the way the characters interact in those early stages, such as with the barely noticeable affectations and the tiny moments of selfishness, all of which construct them as real people just in time for it all to go horribly wrong. And when it does, that’s what makes the arguments so gripping to watch.
These aren’t particularly likeable characters, but they’re definitively human, so there’s an equal amount of empathy and schadenfreude that informs the viewing of this terrible-choice-for-a-date movie right from the outset. And that’s even before Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” suddenly comes thundering across the soundtrack, a jarring stinger disrupting the quaint image of the family brushing their teeth, hinting at a terrible force of nature that’s about to pull the rug from beneath their feet. From then on, you feel a sense of apprehension for the sanctity of the family, even though you’re not entirely sure why you care about them in the first place.
And then, everyone’s true colours are shown. When the avalanche roars towards the diner in which Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their kids are eating, it seems to be escalating far too quickly. As soon as everybody realises it’s about to hit them, their survival instincts come into play with unexpected and resonating impact.
Fortunately, nobody’s hurt, but as with the airplane scene in Almost Famous, the outcome is something the characters will spend the rest of the week (and possibly their lives) trying to live down, or arguing about, or trying to understand, only here it leads to maniacal arguments and neurotic breakdowns inspired by deeply rooted senses of self-loathing. But far from attempting the overwhelming task of ruminating upon human instincts, Östlund never once tries to answer the question “why did that happen?”, instead choosing to focus on “so… er… what happens next?”
Even then, Force Majeure wisely avoids hypothesising in a contrived, pseudo-philosophical type of manner (read: a Christopher Nolan type of manner), arguably satirising such a thing when Mats (Tormund Giantsbane) unwittingly arrives with his girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius) for an evening with the warring couple. Ebba interrupts a jocular life story after chugging away at a bottle of wine and, accepting counsel that nobody offered, she talks everyone through the circumstances of that fateful avalanche. Attempting to ease the situation with junior-level psychology and mumbled platitudes, Mats umms and ahhs his way through flimsy reasoning before eventually giving up and going home.
But before they’ve even left the building, Fanni makes the mistake of speculating on how Mats would react in Tomas and Ebba’s situation. Because the pair of them are drunk, the ensuing argument lasts the rest of the night and beyond, with Mats persisting long after he’s finished making his points purely because he’s still decidedly mad about it. It’s little touches like this that make Force Majeure such an extraordinarily perceptive movie, and despite its occasional moments of absurdity – like when a group of partying drunkards suddenly storm out of a club and kidnap Tomas for a night of roaring debauchery – the interplay between Tomas and his family remains completely emotionally realistic, like Scenes from a Marriage crossed with Before Midnight.
But Östlund, being the guy that poked fun at his own movie by recreating its “worst man cry” sequence in a YouTube video when Force Majeure was not Oscar-nominated and then continuously refusing to admit that it was all a joke afterwards, keeps his tongue firmly in his cheek even as the central family essentially disintegrates. This way, he not only prevents the movie from being Haneke-level dramatic, but he occasionally enhances how shocking it is by adding light-hearted twists on the situations. For instance, a moment when Tomas pretends to cry to get attention from his wife is followed by a moment when Tomas actually breaks down in hysterics, and while you’re laughing at how ridiculous it all is, there’s a considerable pang of horror at the complete surrendering of his dignity. Östlund understands that massive arguments can come from the smallest of things, but more than anything he revels in the fact that human beings turn into really weird dicks when such an argument takes hold.
- L. G. Ball