Force Majeure is a film about an avalanche. But like any good art movie, that inciting incident is really just a MacGuffin that launches a two-hour inquiry into one family’s power dynamic.
Sweden’s official Best Foreign Language Film entry for the 2015 Oscars is a curious film. Following a family of four Swedes vacationing in Switzerland, their five-day jaunt turns sour on day two. We’re aware from the start of the constantly booming cannons which create man-made, controlled avalanches on nearby mountains. And a gorgeous outdoor lunch gives the quartet a rare view of one of these avalanches in progress. At first the rushing snow is beautiful, then loud, then awfully close. As the avalanche looks like it’s about to smash right into the restaurant, father Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) panics and runs for safety. Only he’s left his wife and kids behind to be trampled by the masses. It’s a false alarm — just a dusting of powder — but the real damage is psychological. Is Tomas a coward?
What follows is a dramatic look at how the family deals with the fallout. The wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), starts fishing for an admission of guilt — or at least cowardice — bringing up the incident with other resort guests at length, even going so far as to show the video of the avalanche captured on Tomas’s phone to them — not because of the snowy spectacle, but because of its indictment of Tomas’s behavior. Meanwhile, Tomas, an extremely douchy guy that you hope will be whisked away by another avalanche later in the film, sees it in shades of gray and doesn’t really acknowledge what happened one way or another. He knows he panicked, and he clearly regrets his knee-jerk fight or flight choice, but pride won’t allow for a mea culpa.
Day after day, Ebba refuses to drop it, while Tomas tries to move on with life. Eventually the pair start skiing separately. Ebba goes off alone. Tomas takes the kids. Long digressions take us into the hotel rooms of friends and, bizarrely, an improptu rave that Tomas finds himself in. How will it end? Director Ruben Östlund has tricks up his sleeve for the last 20 minutes, but I’ll spare you the agony of wondering whether there will be a second avalanche to deal with. There isn’t one, aside from an avalanche of emotions that both Ebba and Tomas have to dig out from. Determining which of these are real and which are manufactured make for Force Majeure‘s most gripping moments.
Östlund cut his teeth on skiing movies, and his comfort in the snow is clear. Force Majeure has some of the best snowbound photography you’re likely to see outside of a Warren Miller movie. That said, for all the talk about its dramatic opening, the big avalanche scene in the film looks fake, and it is — a composite of greenscreen and CGI that doesn’t really feel any more threatening than Gollum in Lord of the Rings.
Östlund however is clearly less comfortable when the action moves to the hotel rooms and dinner tables. There is plenty of hand-wringing and finger-pointing to go around, but ultimately it’s all much ado about nothing. The guy acted foolishly, without thinking. The wife should have let it go. Everyone should have just gotten over themselves and moved on to enjoy the week on the slopes without so much drama. But that wouldn’t have been very Swedish.