By Zhuo-Ning Su.
Swedish comedic drama Force Majeure is a sneaky, unsparing, surgically accurate stab to a very particular part of the human sensibility, which makes it at once hilarious and deeply unsettling to watch. Written, directed and performed with remarkable intelligence and empathy, it tickles, provokes, cooks up delicious tension throughout, even if all that steam can’t seem to find the perfect outlet in the end for an appropriately volcanic burst. Unfolding like a travel diary, the story follows a bourgeois family of four on a skiing vacation. It’s a healthy, loving, reasonably well-to-do bunch enjoying themselves at a posh French locale where work is prohibited and misery a remote notion. But then an accident involving an avalanche happens. Leaving no physical damage behind, the true aftermath of this apparently harmless interlude isn’t revealed until the dinner afterwards, as mother/wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) recounts, to the horror of father/husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), the event from her perspective in front of two guests. The night ends in great awkwardness without the couple’s facing up to the crux of the problem. On the one end efforts are still being made to downplay, brush over, cover up; on the other a resignation and possibly pacifist need lead to reluctant compliance. The trauma of the experience is such, however, that it doesn’t allow to be forgotten, and the very fact that a truce of sorts has been made only adds fuel to the frustration, resentment and a host of unnamed toxic feelings bubbling beneath the surface. At a second dinner with two other guests, the dam is finally flooded and we’re left with one of the most spectacularly uncomfortable movie scenes in recent memory.
The genius of the writing is attributable to its absolute humanity and honesty. It looks all the flaws, frailties and embarrassing traits of our race straight in the eyes and mocks them without mercy. Because it’s so deeply grounded in reality, you can identify or sympathize with the protagonists’ bad decisions every step of the way. And because it’s so relentlessly candid, even when you can tell chances for reconciliation are too far gone and catastrophe is now inevitable, you can’t help but giggle along. What’s also clever about the script is its use of one relatively unassuming incident as catalyst to set off a whole chain of unforeseeable reactions. Like an Ian McEwan novel, it capitalizes on the power of extraordinary circumstances to shake us out of the protective shell of morals or self-discipline, and follows with sharp insight how fundamentally decent people can end up hurting one another so much when acting on largely blameless instincts. As the movie progresses, you can literally feel the invisible footing on which a relationship and family stands loosen like cracks spreading through ice- a tingling, anticipatory, gloriously ominous feeling.
Also contributing to the simultaneous appeal of the film as comedy and drama are the sharp direction and fine acting. Helmer Ruben Östlund, who’s responsible for the screenplay as well, shows an innate understanding of what makes us tick, what gives a moment weight, what changes the temperature in a room. Reminiscent of the earlier work of Ang Lee, his depiction of the family dynamic, complete with its secret language, subtle rules, unspoken understandings, is authentically unagitated but charged with an ever-shifting electric current. Applied to a social setting, the forces at play are even stronger with the inclusion of outsiders. And here, as evidenced by the aforementioned two dinner scenes, Östlund tracks the fissures in the fabric of acceptable behavior with the precision of a bomb disposal expert, choosing and timing the shots and edits so meticulously that no trace of embarrassment, anger, panic, humiliation quietly ripping the peace apart goes undetected. Of course, no fireworks of emotions are possible without able actors to deliver the raw material. In this case, the two leads are both outstanding. Kongsli plays the dramatic fuse of the film. None of the aftershocks would work if people don’t buy into her moral outrage triggered by the accident. And she pulls that off with flying colors.
In another beautifully (and painfully) observant scene in which her character gets to watch the rest of her family go about their skiing routines without her from a rather compromised position, she communicates succinctly the utter despair of someone at war with her own principles. As the shamed breadwinner fighting to preserve his dignity, Kuhnke gets the figure of the slightly emasculated modern male just right. Not necessarily the leader of the pack anymore but still hanging on to the vanity of someone in charge, often feeling powerless, underappreciated, and especially feeling wronged when called a coward, it’s a fearlessly naked performance that deserves all the laughs it nets and echoes it finds. In supporting roles, Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius are also delightful as the well-meaning couple inadvertently dragged into a domestic storm. In many ways representing the viewer, their expressions of stunned speechlessness would no doubt mirror those of many sitting in the audience, which is so much fun.
The movie looks fantastic. A minimalist Scandinavian aesthetic underlies the bold, linear framing and composition of the picture, captured by some pristine lensing. Panoramic view of the Alpine vista, both in the splendor of the day and the menace of the night, grace the screen at regular intervals. The sound work on the film, from the whooshing of the slides cutting through snow to the suffocating sonic void inside the mountain lifts, is also remarkable. Particularly noteworthy is how the director uses the visual and aural design to reflect and reinforce the corresponding mindset of the characters within. Treacherous weather accompanied by orchestral music and the occasional firing of snow cannons, crashing avalanche exposing the dangerous hollows beneath the snow-capped perfection all play into the apt synergy of technical and narrative storytelling. It’s a shame then that, with so much going for it, the movie doesn’t exactly end with a bang. A scene low on visibility and high on allegorical value that leads in the ending is most likely meant to appear staged and equivocal, but however one looks at it, it lacks in its outcome the deep pull or vicious bite of what’s come before. As for the actual finale, which involves another unexpected occurrence on the group’s way home, it’s not as well-conceived as the central conflict to evoke similarly relatable response in its fallout, so that even though the film closes with a somehow newfound cool attitude, you kind of wish it would be something less harmonious but incisive, messier but profound.
Zhuo-Ning Su is a PhD candidate in law at the Free University of Berlin. His writing on film has appeared in The Berlin Film Journal and EXBERLINER.