Warning: This review contains spoilers in its second half.
Every May I diligently focus all sorts of attention to what’s going on at the Cannes Film Festival. I diligently jot down a list of all the movies that are in competition and keep my eyes peeled to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to see which film is in position to win the prestigious Palme d’or. What I haven’t been doing, however, is keeping a keen enough eye on what’s been going on in the “Un Certain Regard” section and with the Director’s Fortnight. This is increasingly beginning to seem like a mistake because all too often a movie featured in one of those programs will come along and blindside me, especially if it doesn’t have a name-brand director at the helm. That was the case with Force Majeure, a Swedish movie from a fairly obscure filmmaker which I hadn’t really heard anything about at all until it opened stateside a week or two ago to solid reviews. As such I ended up going to it with very little idea of what it was or what to expect out of it, which is not really a position I’m used to being in.
The film is set at a ski resort in France which is being visited by an upper middle-class Swedish family on vacation. The vacation seems to be going well until one day while the family is eating lunch on a balcony patio they see an avalanche that seems to be coming towards them. It turns out that this “avalanche” is nothing to worry about. It was intentionally set off (albeit at the wrong time) and the bulk of the snow never reached the second floor patio the family is eating at but it’s still rather frightening in the moment and the husband,Thomas (Johannes Kuhnke), responds by running for his life while the rest of the family hunkers down. Once it’s apparent that they were never in danger the family sits back down to eat, but the incident still lingers in their minds. The wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) confronts Thomas about his act of cowardice, but Thomas insists that she misinterpreted what happened and that he wasn’t really running away, which Ebba finds less than convincing. Eventually this really starts to snowball and begins to be a wedge that could potentially divide the two if it goes unchecked.
The central theme of Force Majeure would seem to be masculinity as it basically has the husband being challenged for his cowardice and his resulting shame. The film seems to question whether there’s really a place for traditional conceptions of male toughness and courage in modern middle-class society. It actually reminded me a lot of this episode of the show “Louie” called “Bully” where Louie is challenged to a fight by a teenager. After he balked at that immature challenge he’s soon told by his date that, while she intellectually believed that was the right thing to do, it was still a pretty big turn-off. That act of emasculation sent Louie into an existential crisis and pretty much the same thing happens in this movie. The husband gets really confused and embarrassed and goes into a funk that mostly exasperates the situation.
Here’s the thing about Force Majeure: I think the whole “masculinity” angle is a bit of a false lead. While he is challenged by the wife, it becomes increasingly clear towards the end that he’s more upset with himself than the wife ever was. From the beginning the wife seemed more angry about the husband’s excuses after the fact than she was about his initial cowardice. She doesn’t say she wants him to grow a backbone, she says she wants the two of them to simply be on the same page. Just the same, he does get distracted by his emasculated whining and this is why the wife eventually has to feign injury on a ski slope in order to give him a chance to “save the day” and re-establish his masculinity. However, I think the real key to that scene on the ski-slope isn’t that the husband is given the chance to save the day at the end, but rather that they were recklessly going down that slope in the first place. Together they made that dangerous decision, and then soon thereafter they’re making an over-cautious decision together as they decide to leave a bus that’s going down a hill in a rather dangerous manner. They key word in both of those scenarios is “together.” By the end of the film they are once again on the same page, and that is why the film never really goes down the Blue Valentine/Before Midnight rabbit-hole and the ending seems rather hopeful about their marriage.
Force Majeure probably works best as a starting point for discussions; as a movie I don’t necessarily think it’s overly remarkable. Ruben Östlund certainly knows how to make a movie and gives the film a solid modern look and does a pretty good job of bringing the film’s ski resort to life but the film never really feels like a single cohesive piece. The film has a handful of side characters like a pair of friends that come to visit the central couple and a mischievous resort worker who arrive into the film but don’t really have complete arcs. In fact, at times it feels almost like this is a very special episode of a Swedish sitcom rather than a single complete movie given that it just sort of peaks in at one episode of this couple’s life and brings everything to a status quo at the end. That’s not to say that it’s a poor movie, I definitely hold it with a certain level of regard, but it still felt more like a trifle than the real deal.
*** out of Four