Lily Kendall hails Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s latest film that regards its struggling male protagonists with sympathy but doesn’t quite let them off the hook
The premise of Ruben Östlund’s (Involuntary, 2008; Play, 2011) latest film, Force Majeure, is one that could put some feminists on red sexism alert. Married couple Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) take their two children skiing in the French Alps. Early on in the trip, they experience what they believe to be an avalanche while lunching on the resort restaurant’s terrace. Ebba grabs the children and tries to protect them; Tomas grabs his iPhone and abandons his family. Although it quickly turns out the avalanche was controlled, Tomas’ conduct hangs darkly over the remaining running time of this excruciatingly true-to-life black comedy drama as the couple try to come to terms with their differing reactions.
Such set-up is laden with gendered assumptions about stereotypical ‘motherly’ and ‘fatherly’ reactions. Yet whenever writer/director Östlund’s script teeters on the edge of following these stereotypes, the film pulls back and instead offers an insightful and perceptive reflection on two people trying to maintain a relationship. Whilst the film does compare male and female behaviours (always a treacherous activity), it’s refreshingly free from tired stereotypes.
“Force majeure” is defined as an “irresistible compulsion” yet it’s also embedded in the language of contracts: it is an unforeseeable circumstance that prevents the fulfilment of a contract. The expectations placed on two people when they enter a marriage contract and start a family are implied in the title, as too are the expectations placed on ‘mother’ and ‘father’ according to society’s gendered assumptions.
Rather than positioning the two reactions as intrinsically ‘male’ or ‘female’, Östlund uses the seismic event to meditate on the fragility of intimate family relationships and to probe uncomfortably at what lies beneath the picture-perfect surface. One can tell from the opening scene that the family, like the avalanche itself, are under some strain; it takes one extraordinary event to bring the entire structure crashing down and the pent up emotions tumbling out.
Östlund’s painfully well-observed dialogue (reminiscent of Linklater’s Before trilogy) must be a source of embarrassing recognition for anyone who has experienced an argument with a partner. Director holds a mirror to relationships and the roles we play within them and encourages us to recognise the conceited bravado, self-conscious affectations and bravura feats of acrobatic logic we perform to evade responsibility and wriggle free from blame. Tomas’ oft-used excuse tries to invalidate Ebba’s accusation: it is, he says, all a matter of “perceptions”. He perceived one set of events, she perceived another. This curious double-think seems, to Tomas’ mind, to allow both versions of events to coexist. Östlund is clearly ridiculing this flawed logic, yet he does so with some fondness, identifying a very recognisable human fault that is probably part of many people’s arsenal when waging verbal war on a loved one.
The central couple are fantastically mirrored by family friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his young girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius) who join the family on holiday. Ebba has kept her emotional reaction to the experience bottled up until she publicly accuses Tomas over dinner. Mats and Fanni cannot help but hypothesise on their own conduct in such a situation. To some extent, gender sides with gender: Mats tries to back his friend by referencing the supposedly hardwired “fight or flight” reaction while Fanni argues that it’s “generational”. She believes Mats would also abandon his family – not because all men would, but because men of their generation, she argues, have been socialised to have less involvement with their children.
Mats’ straight-faced suggestion that Tomas is a victim of society’s pressure to be a “hero” is met with derision from the audience. Admittedly, little sympathy is to be found for Tomas, especially when, in a grossly over-the-top snivelling admission of infidelity, he wails pathetically that he’s a “victim of his own instincts”. Yet though the film raises a hero complex primarily to snigger at the increasingly far-fetched justifications for Tomas’ conduct, it stops short of dismissing the pressure he’s under. When Mats and Tomas spend some time alone off-piste, Mats encourages Tomas to alleviate the pressure by screaming across the empty valley.
The sublimely beautiful yet impersonal surroundings captured by cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel show us a family displaced from their ordinary routine and forced to spend a week of intensive “quality time”. Repeated shots of Tomas and Ebba’s undignified and increasingly loud squabbling in the hotel corridor as they try to find space away from the children show a family thrown into uncomfortably close proximity. The recurrent images of piste-bashers, snow cannons and controlled explosions pummelling nature into a groomed state serve as a metaphor for the family’s attempts to keep the unit together despite their human impulses to aggravate, frustrate and punish one another.
At its heart, the film is a meditation on wounded masculinity. In a refreshing departure from the neurotic woman attempting to “have it all”, here we see men struggling to live up to the strong protector/hero/father role to which they aspire. Östlund allows his male characters the chance to restore their masculinity when the narrative requires them to “act” a heroic role. In so doing, he reveals the flimsy performative moments that build up the ego and exposes the roles that we play as nothing more than indulgences endured by one partner for the sake of the other’s pride.
Far from setting off feminist alarm bells, Force Majeure is a work that deals sensitively, humorously and often tenderly with the expectations placed on the heterosexual family unit, particularly the male family members. Its examination of human foibles is as unflinching as it is empathetic. Perhaps most importantly, it offers a refreshing alternative to the perennial hapless man-child trope that sees men reduced to juvenile frat boys incapable of making adult decisions and experiencing adult emotions. Whilst the film may not be entirely sympathetic to its male characters, it gives them space to explore their masculinity. Despite cinema’s disproportionate focus on male characters, this is a rare occurrence – one to be encouraged.
Force Majeure still plays in some cinemas across the country.
All photos taken from the film’s FB fanpage, may be subject to copyright.
First picture is of four people (two adults, two children) posing for a perfect skiing holiday photo against snowy mountains, wearing full skiing gear. From the left: Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren).
Second picture is of tourists on the view terrace in the mountains, watching what looks like masses of snow coming down the mountain looking beautiful, taking pictures/videos on their phones.
Third picture is of the four people who look like a family, brushing their teeth with electric toothbrushes in front of a big wall-wide mirror. From the left: bare-chested Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), fierce-looking Harry (Vincent Wettergren), Vera (Clara Wettergren) somewhat in the second row and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) in a dark blue top.