Film Review – Force Majeure
People’s values and instincts are often at odds with themselves; we believe that in a dangerous situation we would do the right thing and yet we can never know until the situation presents itself. Director Ruben Östlund does something interesting in that he creates the concept of this situation in Force Majeure, without a negative outcome except in how the person is viewed. Yet, as he is able to ground the film in these truths, he keeps a sense of humor of the whole situation.
We take a regular moment in life as our starting point: a family on a ski vacation. We have Thomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their young children Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren). From the few glimpses of the family, they appear quite normal. Harry, the youngest, complains and gets tired at random moments. Thomas works too much, but it isn’t detrimental to his relationship with his family. When Ebba catches him on his phone when he says he isn’t, it is laughed off as Thomas just being Thomas.
So while they appear normal, an event happens at the resort that Thomas handles badly, which leaves Ebba to question where her husband’s values and instincts take him. It would not be so bad if Thomas could just come out and say that he did something stupid and apologize which, while not fixing everything, would at least show he recognizes his error. Instead, he exacerbates the problem by not even acknowledging what he has done. At first glance, I was surprised by what Thomas did and was immediately on Ebba’s side and yet when something unexpected happens, I started to wonder, what would I do? Thomas’s actions aren’t unforgivable but simply raise the question about what you would do, and if you chose wrongly, could you explain it? Is it so bad if your instincts surface when you have almost no control?
Despite the seriousness of the conversation, the film is actually surprisingly light in tone except for this issue. The camera movements create humorous visuals out of moments that are not inherently funny. The opening shot of Harry randomly peeing continues till we see the family simply moving up a mountain by holding onto a wire. The fact that we stay on these shots that really have no clear meaning makes for a sense of absurdity of the normal moments in life, the waiting we have to go through and how bizarre that can look when we really think about it. Little vignettes like this also pop up with side characters who seem like someone you could meet, but also add a sense of levity. There is a random cleaning man who just seems to be around whenever something awkward is going on, and a woman who talks with Ebba about having a family but also blatantly enjoys taking short term lovers. There is even another couple who, after hearing about the situation, get into their own fight as they try to figure out what they would do.
The perceptions of Thomas by himself and by those around him bring up ugly truths about what people can do even if there are reasons behind it. In this and the discussion around what happened, we question our perception of ourselves. We would hope to see ourselves in the best possible light but cannot help but wonder if we would make the right decision or if we even could.
The remaining moments of the film sadly deflect some of the major issues that we have dealt with in order to make us feel better rather than what felt like a natural progression of these characters. There is a strong emotional moment where Thomas talks with his family that gets to the deeper issues he had that was more interesting than the more pat moments later. Then we end it all on a surprisingly ambiguous note where I have still not figured out what the director was going for, yet still feel it works.
This is a thinking film that never takes itself so seriously as to make it feel weighty. We see the conflict clearly and it illuminates some issues that are more of a fun exercise to think about rather than a deeply philosophical question. It may not leave a lasting impact, but the film gives an intriguing and humorous look at the fight-or-flight instinct we all know is in us.