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Film Review: Force Majeure

Force Majeure (2014; Directed by Ruben Östland)

Swedish director Ruben Östland’s Force Majeure is a subversively funny deadpan satire of brittle masculine pride and impotent self-regard hidden inside the shell of an oblique arthouse drama about the breakdown of a family’s confident pretenses during an Alpine holiday. Catalyzed by pater familias Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) ungalantly fleeing and abandoning his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and children (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) to their fates in the face of an (ultimately false-alarm) avalanche, Östland’s film perceptively observes and then pitilessly kneecaps the dissemblings and chest-puffing demonstrations of men whose biological imperatives are threatened and even fatally punctured.

Before a frightening (but finally harmless) wall of driving snow descends upon the restaurant patio of a pricey mountain resort and shakes the family’s opinion of Tomas, Östland and his cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel craft a series of memorable widescreen images of comical detachment and awkward faux-recreation to set the scene. Family members encased in ski jackets ride conveyor belts and cable cars and ski lifts, passively moved by machinery from place to place on the slopes: at one point, they are literally dragged along on their skis, tethered to one such sizable device as if to a towering metaphor for powerless ennui. Even when the controlled avalanche threatens to go uncontrolled on the restaurant deck, Östland films the entire scene in a single fixed-camera shot, showing cell-phone-cameras held aloft, Tomas and other vacationers scattering in momentary panic, and then filtering back to their drinks and snow-dusted lunch plates once the white fog dissipates (the Swedish title, Turist, emphasizes the commodified performativity of upper-middle-class travel as a symptom of the dishonest pretenses of the contemporary bourgeoisie that Tomas and his family represents, while the legal reference of the English-language title more succinctly summarizes the film’s core ideas).

The awkward tension of the scenes that follow, as Tomas denies cutting and running when Ebba confronts him one-on-one and in front of friends and his kids sullenly insist on being left alone in anxiety over a potential parental divorce, shows a momentary but revealing lapse of character becoming gradually exacerbated. Ebba definitively lays bare Tomas’ actions and dishonesty in the midst of an evening with their divorced Norwegian friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his college-age girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius), confronting him humiliatingly with his perceived cowardice.

But Östland is careful not to ascribe his movie’s bedrock premises about gender stereotypes and male patterns of self-worth too much self-importance and sincere significance. This insistence on popping these overinflated balloons saves Force Majeure from sharing and thus parroting the reactionary implications of its characters’ rote conservative assumptions about gender roles, and it results in several of the movie’s most unexpected explosions of dry but uncompromising Nordic humour. Quite perfectly, at the climactic moment during Ebba’s intervention in front of Fanni and Mats (who attempts ineffectually to rationalize Tomas’ choices in futile solidarity) at which Tomas’ tension and anguish bring him right up to the verge of a crisis point and perhaps even an admission of guilt, his son’s drone helicopter buzzes in and breaks up the scene by knocking over a wine glass (Östland, in a technical masterstroke, cuts suddenly to the drone’s own camera for the interruption).

The oddball left-field humour continues to recur in subsequent vignettes, at every point upending smug assumptions of masculine supremacy. Borne down by sadness over his damaged self-esteem, Tomas cuts short a male-bonding day on the slopes with Mats (after some impromptu primal scream therapy), but an après-ski sequence of the two friends drinking beers at a sunny resort spot offers both male egos a stinging blow: a young woman tells them that her friend thinks they’re the most handsome guys there, but then returns a moment later with the deflating news that her friend was talking about someone else. The testosterone injection provided by Hivju’s arrival in the film (he’s best known to English-speaking audiences as the lusty wildling warrior Tormund on Game of Thrones) promises to renew Tomas’ bruised ego until this moment, but Hivju’s hirsute manliness proves just as limp and laughable at this moment.

Later, either unwilling or unable to return to his hotel room and waiting family, Tomas’ nighttime wanderings lead to him being suddenly swept up by a stampede of the Euro equivalent of drunken, partying frat boys; the shirtless, strobe-lit dance club revels that they share manifest as some bizarre homosocial ritual of masculine release. When Tomas finally breaks down and admits his weakness and inadequacy to a stony Ebba, his rending sobs are not cathartic or moving but ridiculous, diminishing, and deeply hilarious (kudos to Bah Kuhnke for effectively playing off the difference). The mildly-amazed voyeurism of a resort custodian (who has to open the hotel suite door for the keyless Tomas and Ebba after his embarrassing meltdown in the hall) further chortles at the spectacle of the fallen man. Even when Östland restores the classic chivalric gender-role balance by allowing Tomas to rescue Ebba in white-out conditions on their last day of skiing, there’s a strong suggestive undertone that she offers him this face-saving instance of quasi-heroism as a purposeful peace offering, a balm for his injured ego.

Force Majeure critiques and dismantles the forces of the male ego. That ego’s manifestations in this film are gentler and more harmless than the species of toxic masculinity that seems so dismayingly ascendant in the Age of Trump, but they flow from the same poisoned spring. Lonely and dwarfed by the majestic Alps, the male ego appears petty and small in Östlund’s film, its impotent weakness as white and stark as newly-fallen snow.

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