Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
An avalanche pushes a marriage to its breaking point in Force Majeure, a witty, acerbic comedy about masculinity and familial life in the wake of a rash decision. Writer-director Ruben Östlund employs a detached, unwavering look at the disintegration of trust and long-lasting foundation within a married couple and the aftermath of a husband’s self-preserving actions. In the wake of overly masculine heroes in superhero films and other blockbusters from major studios, it’s wholly satisfying to see a stripped approach to what makes a man imperfect and how subversive his actions can be when compared to standard cinematic representations. The film’s cinematography in particular uses long, unwavering takes to examine these characters and the growing sense of gender subversion. The central character is Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), a man overly concerned with work while on a five-day vacation with his family at a French resort. It’s winter, the weather is beautifully white and crisp, and Tomas’ family cannot wait to explore the mountains around the resort and ski to their hearts’ desire.
His wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), wants this vacation to be a means of bringing the family closer together, meaning that Tomas must put away his cell phone and spend as much time as needed with his kids. She feels isolated in these times while he attempts to make a living, but her life begins to crumble when an avalanche hits the resort. The shot is beautifully rendered by Östlund, captured with a green screen in the background and the image of an actual avalanche playing as the actors react to the natural disaster. It’s remarkable how fluid and gripping the scene is, particularly as the mood changes from playful (as the family thinks it’s a controlled avalanche) to terrified (as the avalanche threatens them) in a heartbeat. Yet what defines the film, and becomes the main catalyst for conflict, is Tomas’ reaction to the moment, failing to seize the opportunity to save his kids but instead choosing to grab his phone and run inside as quickly as he can. His abandonment of family, and the moments afterward when everyone is okay and Tomas must confront the moment, is presented as both hilarious and horrifying.
Östlund’s film provides the audience with these biting laughs, ones that provide commentary on the characters while also relying on situational comedy to lighten the tone. When Tomas lounges with a friend and drinks rather than spending time with his family, a woman approaches them and lets them know that her friends think Tomas is attractive. Flattered, the two men laugh and feel pleased, only for the woman to come back and awkwardly correct herself by saying they think the man next to him is attractive. The camera lingers on a single take for this whole scene, having it shift slowly from ego-boosting to painfully awkward. It’s also one of the many subversive scenes on display, particularly as the film examines the crumbling hubris of a man defined by his strength as he sees it disappear before his eyes. Tomas’ breakdown in the film’s final half is remarkable, especially when demonstrated through the dichotomy between him and his wife. Both lead performances are stellar and allow the film to work as an emotional force of nature (hence the title). While Force Majeure may run a bit too long and painfully force the audience to watch long-winded scenes that analyze every single way a person could’ve handled such a situation, the film lingers and questions. That cannot be said about most films.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)