mon 17/06/2024

Force Majeure | reviews, news & interviews

Force Majeure

Force Majeure

Swedish drama about crucial moment of family breakdown impresses, bleakly

Like the very beginning of cinema: an avalanche crashes towards viewers of 'Force Majeure'

The fault-lines of human relationships are tested in Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure, and prove much more fraught than the physical threat inherent in the film’s glorious alpine landscapes. Its opening scenes capture a Swedish couple, on a skiing vacation in the Alps with their two young children, having their photographs taken by a resort snapper: as they readjust their poses, it seems like a search for a depiction of the perfect family.

But beneath such hinted ideals, there’s a heavy underlying level of unease bubbling, which will duly unravel over the course of the film’s two hours. Whether it’s an irreparable rupture or not, we’re left wondering with a conclusion that leaves most questions unanswered.

Ostlund’s premise is that none of us know how we’ll react when catastrophe threatens, and that it’s those unpredictable responses that reveal true character. Force Majeure is divided into five days (each heralded by an overly bracing burst of Vivaldi) as we observe this family vacation: its breakdown point comes on day two, when the family, having lunch on a bright restaurant balcony, is threatened by an approaching avalanche that threatens to engulf them. The instinctive reaction of mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is to shield her children, while father Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) protects himself and retreats.

As the eruption of snow subsides, the emotions that it gives rise to will only fester

The fact that it appears to be a “controlled” avalanche – if that doesn’t seem a contradiction in terms – designed to control the slopes, doesn’t in any way detract from the terror of the scene. Ostlund, a master of post-production techniques, edited in a real avalanche into this otherwise pastoral foreground scene: the volumes of snow that advance at us, the viewer, just as they do at the characters, seem as real as they can be, even recalling the very illusions of reality with which cinema itself came into being. But as the eruption of snow subsides, the emotions to which it gives rise will only fester.

And they do so all the more potently against a background of barely preserved normality, in the security of the details of this traditional family unit: we see accepted rituals, like nightly tooth-brushing (pictured below) carried out in a now unfamiliar context. After the first shock come the attempts to make sense of what has happened, including Tomas’s initial denial that he had acted as he did (given that he’d filmed the event on his phone, that’s a version that doesn’t stand up). As the consequences are mulled over by both parents, they seep inevitably into the minds of the two children (played, and cast, extremely well by real-life brother and sister Vincent and Clara Wettergren): son Harry is the first to spot the scale of the potential futue rupture when he pronounces the word “divorce”.

The arrival of another couple who join them for the final days of the family’s stay brings no greater release, instead prompting Tomas’s closest friend to ponder uneasily how he might have reacted himself. Doubts reverberate claustrophobically in the minds of all concerned. There’s liberation to be found, to an extent, by excursions, solitary or otherwise, up into the virgin snow of the mountains, but even there the result is more often a white-out of blizzard rather than any bright clarity of resolution.

There’s palpable tension here, but how much it emotionally grips us is another matter: Ostlund as director remains the observer, making for a certain coldness of emotion that matches the stark, pristine beauty of the exteriors. He also catches an unnerving sense that the physical environment of this ski resort functions with its own inevitability, with a carefully programmed behaviour that puts the human drama into a somehow alienated perspective. Too long by at least a reel, Force Majeure – its international release title is certainly much more nuanced than the Swedish original, which was simply Turist – falls down on its ending. It’s a baffling closing scene which, while it does re-address the film’s main concern of how to take control when confronting danger, nevertheless seems tacked on rather than incremental to what has come before. Strong performances notwithstanding, Force Majeure somehow seems a film that hits the head more than the heart.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Force Majeure


None of us know how we’ll react when catastrophe threatens, and it’s those unpredictable responses that reveal true character


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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