Force Majeure: avalanches, deconstruction, and clean slates

At the outset, Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure enraptures the viewer in the idyllic. A vacation in the French Alps taken by the perfect family: they weave and bob skiing down a hill in elegant athleticism; later, they take naps together in bed, and enjoy the pristine containment of harmony in their hotel room. Perhaps the only tension at this point is that the father Tomas works too much, but even when he is caught checking his phone it’s a laughing matter easily brushed off. They are an almost annoyingly model European family, befit for the fake photos in Ikea catalogs or the filler image in a new picture frame. But where Force Majeure starts us is far from where it will venture, and much like its vacationing family the viewer will be left rattled in a curious, awkward, even funny drama as twisty as slaloms down a snowy mountain.

Their second day’s experience is the major crux of this narrative. They are at a restaurant in the hotel. They sit at a table outside, admiring the Alps in full view, when a controlled avalanche begins its long tumble down the mountain. Tomas assures them that it is fine and that it happens all the time. But when the avalanche quickens its pace the closer it gets, and the mounds of monstrous snow heighten to a wall of white, the family fearfully realizes that perhaps this one is different. As the avalanche nears, people at the tables run screaming and rush around for cover. Ebba, the mother, and her children hide under the table in the last possible moments. The final glimpse, as the snow hits in complete whiteout, reveals Tomas running away from his wife and kids, pushing against other people in a frantic, as he exits out of view. What follows is a strange, sometimes hilarious, though often tense vacation. Ebba recounts the scenario to their various friends, in awkward conversations, and several times argues with Tomas who denies the reality of leaving his family behind, putting their marriage into crisis.

Doodle drawing for film blog review of Force Majeure. By Luke Bartolomeo.

…the viewer will be left rattled in a curious, awkward, even funny drama…

Snow is perhaps the driving imagery and force of this story. It is snow that becomes the great resetter of these characters’ beings and nature as they begin to shed layers of themselves and their beliefs about each other. The avalanche, in its great and purifying wonder, and the following reaction by Tomas, wipes away everything. The roles played in this almost perfect family unit become cracked veneers. The reality of familial structures is challenged, along with identities. What is a father, Tomas must ask, if the accepted values and expectations held for such a role, of at least co-protectorate of your children, are put to challenge and the challenge is met in a failure so embarrassingly evident and overbearing? What’s worse is that Tomas denies he has failed, for fear the pride of his manhood being tarnished or for not wanting to admit his selfishness. Regardless, it spirals him into a weaker and more loathsome kind of creature, one that his wife cannot identify. And what is it to be in love or married, Ebba must wonder, if the person you love shows in an instant they are not the person you assumed they were? Who are you loving then? What illusion has captured you, and what illusions in yourself have helped you to be captured?

Certainly, the film’s deconstructive questioning reigns: what are social roles, especially in marriage, and why, if they’re accepted, do those roles define, really, anything? Taking on a role, its various socially or culturally supposed obligations and duties, does not necessarily mean that underneath one is still not fundamentally someone else altogether. Never is that better discussed then when, at some point following the avalanche, Ebba meets up with her friend who has taken an American as her vacation fling, despite back at home being married with children. Ebba fights with her friend, trying her best to understand her friend’s intentions, whether she is happy in her marriage, how it is ethically right for her to do what she’s doing. But her friend insists her and her partner’s open relationship allows for them to explore other people, while also not hemming them in to being defined only by each other or their children. Her friend and her partner have at root never accepted the roles of a traditional arrangement and they are de facto different and unique people, unchained to intensity of obligation and duty, maintaining each their autonomy. It is that foil of the open relationship, with all its challenge to Ebba’s norms, that pangs Ebba who does not seem able to defend her view of things when her own monogamous and closed relationship is in rupture.

Doodle drawing for film blog review of Force Majeure. By Luke Bartolomeo.

The roles played in this almost perfect family unit become cracked veneers.

Questions about the avalanche and Tomas are also addressed in perhaps the film’s most discomforting scene. Visiting friend Mats and his young girlfriend Fanni must endure a strange night of therapizing both Ebba and Tomas as Ebba recounts the avalanche scenario, even showing video from the event that Tomas captured on his phone. On return to their hotel room, the two family friends battle out whether Mats would do the same thing, Fanni hypothetically claiming he might, leaving both of them in a long night of argument. By their questioning and hypothetical wonder they incriminate themselves. The issues that surround roles and expectations are attached to a natural divisiveness formed in sectioning power and responsibilities. Fanni reminds Mats of his own failings. Mats is a divorced man, Fanni points out, whose children are with his ex-wife, putting his capability of protecting into question. After all, he’s on a vacation with his young girlfriend, far from his children. Much like Ebba and Tomas, they fall into a blame game.

The scene suggests that a role’s perceived duties (crafted under views of class, sexuality, gender, and so forth) have a certain weight and force, and that by their very structure and genesis create unjust power differences. After all, Fanni and Mats begin to hit upon the same struggles that Ebba and Tomas do; both couples scratch the surface of dominant roles and narratives. One furthering contribution to this inequality is the elevated expectations that no one can perfectly live out. Neither Fanni nor Mats can admit to successfully living into the roles they’ve feel they’ve been given. Rather, by their enculturation of these roles they experience a guilt that follows from a sort of hidden legalism embedded within their roles and roles’ expectations.

The film’s setting becomes necessary to asking these questions as it extricates people from their everyday lives. This vacation, in fact, is a tabula rasa of experimentation and there’s a primal and urgent feeling that lurks within it. Throughout the film are shots of the mountains and the sounds of explosions, ones fabricated to help with controlling snow and avalanches. It’s these disturbances that set tension, a constant reminder of the avalanche that has come, but also serve as a cry from the mountains themselves, that they are maintained and bound from their wild nature, and that their wild nature can never be forgotten.

Tomas, too, is revealed his inner wildness on a ski excursion with Mats. At one point, Tomas wants to stop and talk. Instead of talking, Mats encourages him to yell as loud as he can into the open air, getting out his contained aggression. Something teems beneath the surface of this film. Those touches of raw nature, be it controlled or experienced, become little tears in the societal framework overlaying the characters’ deeper natures. With the slate clean, who of these people are right or wrong? Societal, cultural designs have collapsed under the weight of avalanche, replaced by the dark nights of souls who must now endure their shifts in identities and choices partitioned from the comforts of normal patterns and assumptions.

Doodle drawing for film blog review of Force Majeure. By Luke Bartolomeo.

Societal, cultural designs have collapsed under the weight of avalanche…

What is regained at film’s end leaves the vacation experience to, perhaps, only an experimental outing. Certain events, either planned or not, relegate Tomas back to his status in the family’s father role, and everyone seems relieved and happy that this is so. Later, another event, on a bus descending the mountain, reveals an overly concerned Ebba whose fear seems more in line with an unfair stereotype of a mother. It is as if descending the mountain everyone returns to their accepted roles, and leaves the viewer pondering as to whether what they have experienced in their vacation has taught them anything new.

Force Majeure poses good questions regarding society, identity, roles, and relations, especially in regards to marriage relationships. Östlund delivers a critical eye at the makeup of Western social and cultural norms and institutions. The film is a good reminder of the sheer sensitivity and easy dissolution of roles given the circumstances, exposing the razor edges upon which our lives are lived. What lies beneath the surface of us? How solid is the ground of assumed values and faith in structures, and what really are genuine choices given that our freewill, our ability to align to what we desire and believe, could easily crumble under weight of the smallest pivot in action, and thus undermine the entire core of our beings? Force Majeure may ask big questions, but it is an often enjoyable and awkward ride in scrutinizing Western society, and one worth experiencing.

Director: Ruben Östlund
Release Year: 2014
Runtime: 119 minutes

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