By Norm Nielsen
Scarecrow Video’s December Crosscut theme is “Winter Wonderland,” and the Swedish black comedy/relationship drama Force Majeure fits that theme perfectly. Set at the upscale Les Arcs, Savoie resort in the French Alps, you can feel the cold snow buffeting a seemingly picture-perfect family as a marital crisis unfolds during their ski holiday. Imagine Ingmar Bergman doing a black comedy set at a ski resort and you will be in tune with Force Majeure. You do not need to be a skier to appreciate the film. Indeed, Force Majeure won the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated in 2015 for the Golden Globes Best Foreign Film award.
Swedish director Ruben Ӧstlud began his career in the 1990s making ski films (Addicted, Free Radicals, Free Radicals 2) before transitioning to feature films. In Force Majeure Mr. Ӧstlud slyly uses ski area operations as a metaphor for a relationship in trouble; frequent avalanche control explosions, ominously squeaky chairlifts, monster-like nighttime snow grooming machines, and whiteouts infuse the film with a sense of dread. In this environment Tomas, Ebba, and their adolescent children Vera and Harry are on a five-day ski holiday. Early in the film we learn that Tomas works a lot and the purpose of their ski holiday is for him to focus on his family which at times he does not seem to know all that well. The four appear to be a good looking, well-off, conventional Swedish nuclear family. They sleep in similar blue thermal underwear. In the bathroom they all brush their teeth at the same time using the same make of electric toothbrush. Tomas checks his iPhone for messages when Ebba is not looking. The children play games on their iPads. You think you know this modern family.
The pivotal moment in the film comes on the second day of their holiday when a controlled avalanche approaches the deck of an outdoor restaurant where the family is eating lunch. Tomas and Ebba first video record the avalanche and the children’s response on their cell phones. But as the avalanche’s towering cloud of “avalanche smoke” engulfs the deck, Tomas grabs his gloves and iPhone and runs for shelter leaving Ebba and the children to fend for themselves. The scene for about the next two minutes is whiteout slowly turning to sunshine with Tomas sheepishly returning to his family as visibility improves. At first Ebba is deeply but silently irritated by Tomas’s lack of valor. The children are fearful and upset. Ebba later becomes openly angry when at dinner with friends Tomas denies having abandoned his family when he ran off. Ebba shows Tomas and their friends her cell phone video of him running off. Tomas is deeply humiliated. Good friend Mats sides with Tomas saying that when in survival mode a man might not be able to live up to his values. Mats also says that by running off to shelter Tomas could have dug his family out of the avalanche if it had been real. Tomas says he is a victim of his instincts. The rationalizations of the male united front disgust Ebba. Here the film turns very Bergman-like, with long, tearfully confessional monologues addressing archetypical male valor and motherly protective love. In media of all forms throughout our lives we are presented with heroic images, tales of heroic acts, and the pressures to be a hero and do heroic deeds. Does non-heroic behavior make us less male, less female, or an unfit parent? Are we victims of our instincts? These are Force Majeure‘s deeper themes.
Director Ruben Ӧstlud could have made Force Majeure a relationship drama filled with Nordic angst. Instead, he interspersed the film’s introspective and often embarrassing moments with many comic relief scenes aimed at the folly of trying to control physical and human nature. The humor extends beyond the nature-defying hubris of ski area operations to poking fun at primitive male and female behavior. Force Majeure is not a film to see on a first date, or perhaps even on a fifth date. If you have ever been in a long-term relationship, with all of the gender-based assumptions and behaviors, this is a film that you will likely talk about long afterwards.
Norm Nielsen is a Scarecrow Project member and volunteer.