In Force Majeure, an avalanche is a catalyst for the hilarious breakdown of a marriage. Östlund pushes all the events just to the edge of absurdity, to find the comedy in an uncomfortable situation.
When you think about tense family dramas from Sweden, you probably think Ingmar Bergman, and not “hilarious romps.” But writer-director Ruben Östlund’s new film, Force Majeure, which premiered at Cannes in May to an adoring crowd, finds the humour in the awkwardness of marital fights and confrontations: it’s not full of witty one-liners, but the situations and the characters’ reactions are where the often hilarious moments come from. It’s smart and funny, although it does get a tad clunky toward the end, and it’s absolutely a must-see.
The film follows Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two young kids – Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren) – on a six-day ski vacation in the Swiss Alps, as alliances shift and Tomas’s true, desperate, and often vile nature is revealed, just as Ebba’s passive aggression hits its peak. What starts off as an idyllic getaway to get to spend some quality family time with Tomas, who is usually too busy with work to be wholly present, turns into a nightmare after an unexpected near catastrophe.
On the second day of their trip, while eating lunch on a balcony overlooking the slopes, they find themselves watching what seems like a controlled avalanche – Tomas and others start by casually recording it with their iPhones – go suddenly out of control. Once it seems an imminent threat, Tomas runs for his life, without a second thought for his wife and kids, whom he leaves to fend for themselves. When the ordeal ends, and everything ends up being actually OK, he returns to their table as if nothing had happened, resuming his meal.
Östlund lets all of this unfold within a single uncut take, shot from a distance: before the avalanche hits, we can see them in the restaurant from afar. When it hits, we watch Tomas run out of the frame, which turns white with snow, and then we watch him casually return to the frame and resume eating. It’s as if he’s abandoned us, the audience, as well.
Although Tomas’s flight was a cowardly display, it would hardly be the end of the world, had he acknowledged his mistake and apologized. Instead, he insists he didn’t run – he even tries to claim that it’s impossible to run in ski boots – and that Ebba’s “version of events” is mistaken. When Ebba tries to talk to him about it in the hallway outside their room, he won’t come clean, and they merely talk around everything.
This is one of many backstage conversations – they have to ready themselves to return to their kids in their room, with a calm demeanour – which happens, ironically, outside the privacy of their room. Parenting, for them, is a performance of a united front, but Ebba and Tomas are so busy playing parts for each other that it takes them much longer to see how broken they are than it does for their kids, for whom they’re trying to put on a good face.
Much of the film’s tension comes from the chaos occurring within the family unit as it’s juxtaposed with the order and ritual of the ski lodge: the chair lifts constantly moving up and down, the fresh powder being laid on the runs, and the beauty and serenity of the mountainous surroundings. The film is also full of the loud sounds of technology, from the booming nightly explosions of the controlled avalanches, to the buzz of the four electric toothbrushes the family uses together each night. Meanwhile, Vivaldi’s Spring movement from “The Four Seasons” – an accordion rendition of it scores the film – usually a joyous piece, sets a tense mood on the accordion.
Östlund’s previous film, Play, an excellent and chilling drama about tweenage bullying, also unfolded in long, fixed camera, uncut takes, and it showed a great sensitivity to the feelings of children. This understanding of young people comes through in Force Majeure, too: the kids see how broken their parents’ marriage is and how life-changing the aftermath of the avalanche was well before this registers for their parents. As the family stands in a line on a moving sidewalk, with Ebba bringing up the rear and Tomas leading in front of the kids, on their way back to their rooms from the fateful lunch, we watch both kids turn back and forth to look at their parents and gauge their reactions.
Because Ebba and Tomas can’t communicate with each other when alone, Ebba finds herself bringing up the incident over and over again, during their nightly dinners with friends, and this is where much of the humour starts to come out. On day 2, they dine with a Swedish woman (Fanni Metelius) and her boyfriend she met earlier that day (Brady Corbet) who look on uncomfortably, in a two-shot, as the tension between Ebba and Tomas builds, also in a separate two shot.
The next night, at a dinner with Tomas’s friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju, with a comically giant red beard) and his twenty-year-old girlfriend, things come to a head when Ebba decides to show them the iPhone footage of the events to settle the matter — the four of them gather around the phone in a single frame, with Tomas in the middle looking extremely terrified and vulnerable, his hand caught in the cookie jar. The sheer discomfort of Mats and his girlfriend as this all unfolds – when they have a minute alone, Mats exclaims with frustration that Tomas and Ebba desperately need therapy – and the clumsy way in which Mats tries to help Tomas and give him an excuse, is uproariously funny.
But Mats is more than just a comic foil: the more he sympathizes with Tomas, and the more we learn about his own failed marriage, the more we start to see Tomas in him, and the more it seems like Tomas’s flight is not an isolated event. It’s symptomatic of a bigger, deeper problem. He is, as he will wail later – in a scene based on YouTube videos of the “worst man cry ever” – a victim of societal expectations of gender roles: he isn’t the forceful masculine figure that he’s expected to be. It’s too much to live up to. But he also can’t take responsibility for his bad decisions and unkind actions, which come to light as going way beyond giving into his flight over fight instinct.
Östlund tips our sympathy into Ebba’s court from the start: in a daily ritual which the previous day was shot from Tomas’s perspective, we move into Ebba’s perspective shortly after the avalanche. The more horrible and gross Östlund reveals Tomas to be, the more we feel for Ebba’s indignation. But watching the film for a second time, I couldn’t help but notice how cruel and passive aggressive Ebba is: she’s got a right to be angry, but in an attempt to keep things together for the kids, she’s exhibiting some ugly behaviour.
Throughout, Östlund pushes all the events just to the edge of absurdity, to find the comedy in an uncomfortable situation. It’s a tough balancing act between getting us to engage emotionally with the characters – and we can’t help but be heartbroken when we see the two siblings holding each other, crying, after a big fight between their parents – and to look at them from enough distance that we can laugh at their misfortune.
The long takes with still, carefully composed shots help, especially as there are never any close-ups. We’re always kept at a physical distance from the characters. But this also means that multiple characters are often in frame simultaneously – a necessity if you’re not going to move the camera – which gives us a ton of information about the relationships and alliances between them, as well as fueling much of the comedy. The still camera often helps emphasize the emotional detachment of the characters, like in a scene shot from Vera and Harry’s perspective and height – when they’re upset with their parents who were both unkind to them and loudly quarreling – Ebba and Tomas both have to physically crouch down to make it into the frame.