People like to watch the news, hear about some horrible event, and blather on about all the heroic things they would have done if they had been there. Those people have seen too many movies, and are likely saying this from the comfort of their warm living room with a beer in their hands. You never know how you might act, no matter how much you of a badass you think you are. Take me, for example. I used to think I could be a homicide detective after watching The Wire. I couldn't, of course. I practically jump into the air if I ever walk near roadkill.
Force Majeure is about that disparity between what we expect—and perceive—of ourselves, and who we actually are. It is a Swedish film directed by Ruben Östlund, and stars Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli as Tomas and Ebba, a married couple who are on holiday at a French ski resort with their two, young kids, Vera and Harry. While eating lunch on a balcony next to the mountain, one of the resort's controlled avalanches is triggered nearby, producing a gorgeous cascade of snow (that everyone films on their iPhones), but eventually becomes a terrifying natural disaster that looks like it will kill everyone before they can dig into their salads. Then… it doesn't. Everyone's okay. But Tomas, who initially downplayed the danger, took off, leaving Ebba to cower over her kids. As you might expect, this causes problems for the couple.
It feels like Östlund has been here before, and that he is exorcising some demons. I don't know that for sure, but the awkward tension between Tomas and Ebba that results from this uncomfortable experience feels so authentic that I was physically cringing in my seat. Tomas has convinced himself that Ebba only thought that he was running away, when in reality he hadn't. Tomas fails to come up with a real alternative, preferring denial to the realization that he may be sort of a coward. Östlund is tackling this man's idea of himself head-on, stripping away his ability to hide behind his status as the sole breadwinner, the alpha male, and a loving father. But Östlund also dodges any pat explanations for why Tomas is in such deep denial. He instead follows the man's self-deception to its logical conclusion: absolute despair. But, like a true dude, you never hear him apologize.
Östlund's approach is not unlike that of a disturbed child, maliciously pulling the wings off a dragonfly and watching it squirm. There is a cold distance to the way his camera surveys the characters. It is frequently still, and even more so for the frequently long takes Östlund uses. When the camera does move, it is in a smooth, gliding motion that feels like the omniscient glance of a detached observer. There is no escaping the scrutiny of Östlund's lens, which feels like a formally appropriate way to film these characters, who are incapable of finding privacy to really hash out their issues (or have sex), be it from their petulant children or the nosy janitor who works at the resort. We delight in watching these people try to find their way out of their gridlock, because we'd like to learn for ourselves.
A lot of the success of this film is due to the two leads, who bring a weary verisimilitude to both their relationship and their approach to parenting. They both clearly care about their kids—in contrast to the married woman Ebba meets, who's abandoned her brood for one-night stands and beer—yet always with a sense of weary resignation. Both Tomas and Ebba seek some sort of escape, from their lives as parents and maybe even each other. They have a series of conversations in which they utterly fail to explain what they want from one another, a situation which audiences may find all too familiar. Kuhnke and Kongsli make you empathize with them, even if you find their failings a bit close for comfort.
Force Majeure is the best black comedy I have seen in a long time. It will make you think about the ways you delude yourself and those around you in order to keep the peace. It's a reminder of how fragile that illusion is for all of us.