Written & Directed by Ruben Ostlund
Given the opportunity, would you be a hero, or a coward? Of course the vast majority of us would like to think the answer to that question is “hero”. We’d all be heroes if we could. But the problem with the question is that we don’t really know the answer. Until that moment presents itself in our lives, none of us truly know how we will react because it’s just that, a reaction to a situation. It takes the thinking out of it. Sure, we can try as we might to condition ourselves to react in such a way, but ultimately, in the moment, we are going to react, one way or the other. Does it make us a hero, though, should we react heroically? Does it make us a coward if we do nothing? Or does it simply make us human, imperfect?
Writer/director Ruben Ostlund explores this very conversation via his film Force Majeure. Our subject for this conversation is Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), who is a workaholic husband and father of two who has finally taken some time off to spend with them on a ski vacation. However, when they are dining on the terrace one day, a controlled avalanche gets out of hand, scaring all of them. But when Tomas begins denying his retreat away from his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), who was protecting their children, during the event, the family begins to come apart on their holiday in the mountains. The friction grows as Tomas and Ebba are accompanied on the slopes by their friends Mats and Vera, who take the situation as a chance to examine their own thoughts on the matter.
It should be said outright that this film works both as a drama and as a comedy, which is one of the film’s strengths. Its ability to laugh at itself and turn around and be dead serious the next minute is, at first, quite startling, but as the film progresses, it becomes more and more endearing for its more comedic aspects. It may treat tense situations with comedic flare, such as the scene where Ebba reveals to Mats and Vera what has happened, but that comedic flare helps keep it from reaching the depths melodrama and Kristofer Hivju’s sense of comedic timing is magnificent as Mats in these scenes. The juxtaposition of this comedy in scenes that otherwise should be high drama make it one of the more unique cinematic experiences I have had in recent years, but Ostlund seems to strike the right balance while skirting the line of comfort.
The premise is not pleasant, and also not an original one (re: The Loneliest Planet), but Ostlund leaves plenty of space to reflect and contemplate in between the drama and comedy. This space is created with superb pacing and wide open cinematography. As the camera lingers over the family skiing on the mountain, we get to see how everyone reacts to one another set to the backdrop of the stark whites of the snow on the mountain paired with the wide open air of the outdoors. Ostlund has afforded us the opportunity to breath between the scenes of high drama, as implications of the event that has taken place begin to settle with both the audience and the family. Without this pacing, the film might easily become suffocating.
“Force Majeure” is a legal term that frees a party from liability or obligation under extraordinary circumstances, an interesting title for the film. But for every chance where it could have, the film never passes judgment on Tomas for his reaction to the avalanche. Instead, the film takes the chance to explore the family unit and the way they react to the event, how they try to come to terms with it and put the pieces back together. Because the film’s tone was all over the place at times, I felt uncomfortable while watching it, but I wonder whether that was the intent, to make the audience uncomfortable. Was I supposed the laugh? Was I supposed to take it seriously? Whatever the intent, I think I enjoyed the film as much as I did for the very fact that it kept me off-kilter. Ostlund crafts a film worthy of contemplation.
*** – Very Good