Directed by: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren
Nearly all of us believe that, if push came to shove, we would have the courage to defend or protect those who needed our help. But the reality is that many would likely be overcome by cowardice, and prioritize their own wellbeing over that of anyone else.
Director Ruben Östlund touched terrifically upon this subject before with Play, his expertly crafted exposé of racial attitudes within Swedish society. In that film we watched the ramifications brought on by various members of the public failing to intervene, possibly through fear of being branded racists, when a gang of young African immigrants visibly harassed a small group of children.
With Force Majeure, Östlund intelligently draws on the same ideas, but with greater depth. The focus here is on a small Swedish family holidaying in the French Alps. The trip is designed to bring Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) closer together with her hardworking husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and their two young children Vera and Harry (Clara & Vincent Wettergren). However, an incident involving a possibly life-threatening avalanche sees Tomas choosing his own safety over that of his family’s, causing his relationship with Ebba to start falling apart at the seams.
From these foundations, Östlund (who also wrote the script) builds a coldly compelling critique of marriage that’s as bitter and biting as a midwinter blizzard. On occasion, particularly towards the end, he does hesitantly hammer home his ideas too hard, but for the most part Östlund’s filmmaking is coolly confident.
Through Fredrik Wenzel’s captivating cinematography, Östlund crafts a setting of snow-covered serenity. The mountains are magnificent to behold, and the mood they inspire is one of heaven on earth. By contrast, the events that play out against them are hellish. There are dashes of devilishly dry wit comparable to director Roy Andersson to be found, predominately in the fiercely funny dialogue. But, despite the slender layers of satire, Force Majeure is first and foremost a serious affair.
The agonizingly gradual disintegration of Ebba and Tomas’ relationship is an unrelentingly uncomfortable experience that’s tough to watch, but hard to look away from. Wenzel’s camera acts as a forever present and unobtrusive spectator to their pain, submerging the audience in a simmering hotpot of friction.
The performances are poised and natural. Kongsli and Kuhnke initially share an intimate chemistry that makes their growing hostility towards each other all the more painful to witness. The stark realisation etched upon Ebba’s face as her husband reveals himself to not be the great protector she and her kids perceived him to be is particularly poignant to observe.
Force Majeure’s real emotional strength however, does not come from what we see; it comes from how it makes us feel. Many will no doubt brush aside the idea that they could be capable of such spinelessness without a second thought, while others may find themselves restlessly reflecting upon the fact that they may not be as brave as they once believed. The truth, of course, is that no one knows if they would actually do the right thing until such a fateful moment presents itself. An icy final thought that, like the film as a whole, chills you to the bone.