Film of the Week: Force Majeure
The killer shot in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (aka Turist in Sweden) arrives 10 minutes into the film, lasts some four and a half minutes, and will leave you gasping, especially if you had no idea that it was coming—just as the film’s characters weren’t expecting the event it depicts. If you’re allergic to spoilers, you might want to skip the next paragraph, but the shot has already been much discussed in reviews, and a glimpse of it even appears in the trailer and on the poster—so I don’t think Östlund is that worried about giving the game away.
The image is of an avalanche at a ski resort in the French Alps. A Swedish family is sitting among tourists eating on an outdoor patio, and we’re hearing expressions of nervousness about the snow rolling down the opposite slope. Don’t worry, the father assures his family, it’s a controlled avalanche—just before the snow rushes towards the patio and engulfs everyone, and the entire screen, in a cloud of opaque whiteness. The shock effect is extraordinary, and having seen Force Majeure twice, I can assure you it’s still extraordinary even if you know it’s coming. The father is right, of course, the avalanche is controlled—in the sense that this image has been created digitally. To be precise, the film uses footage of a real avalanche, composited together with footage of the actors, with a computer-generated cloud of snow then added to surge up and engulf the screen. Once it clears, nothing in the film is the same again. But what will surely become known as “the famous snow shot in Force Majeure” is, I think, destined to be a key point in future discussions of digital special effects and how they work on our imaginations. What’s startling here is not just the dynamic realism of the image, but the way it interacts with and impacts upon the people on screen: it affects us because it affects them so strikingly. Here’s a rare use of spectacular CGI that absolutely takes the human factor as its focus.
The event that properly kick-starts Force Majeure is important less for the coup de cinema with which Östlund startles us, then for the way it affects the people who live through it. Agreeably laid back, vaguely hip middle-class Swedish couple Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) have brought their two young children Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren) to France on a brief skiing holiday; they’re all seen at the start of the film, herded into an archetypal happy-family pose by a resort photographer. The place is idyllic, with its white slopes and deep blue skies, yet there’s something ominous in the air; Östlund and DP Fredrik Wenzel build up a potently sinister atmosphere at the start by showing us cannons going off, sprays firing on the slopes, and a detachment of snowmobiles gliding uphill—presumably methods to create smooth, skiable snow, emphasizing the artificial, created nature of this perfect “natural” environment. The gentle twang of lift cables adds to the mood, as does the soundtrack’s signature flourish, a snatch of Vivaldi’s “Summer,” playing rather threateningly on accordion.
There’s a brief idyllic moment at the start: the family doze together on the bed of their warm brown pine-walled hotel room (as if they’ve brought their own Sweden with them), all snuggled up in identical blue long-johns. Even Tomas answering his cell phone when he’s supposed to be relaxing doesn’t break the mood. Then the inadmissible happens: the incident during which Tomas behaves with what appears to be outright cowardice. “Cowardice” is an old-fashioned word somehow, and a highly charged one that you don’t often hear these days outside war situations; it smacks of official stigmatization of the shell-shocked in Ypres. But it becomes the cross that Tomas must bear. His first thought during the avalanche—on a conscious or unconscious level—is to save himself. That reaction threatens to fracture both his psyche and his relationship. The issue comes up, shortly after the event, during a dinner with two other tourists, and while Tomas jokingly denies it happened, Ebba can’t let go. She still can’t when they’re joined by two friends from home: Mats (Kristofer Hivju), in his forties, with the shaggy beard of a seasoned outdoorsman, and his 20-year-old girlfriend, Fanny (Fanni Metelius). In an uncomfortably funny scene, Mats gamely tries to bail Tomas out by talking about survival and involuntary instinct, but puts his foot in it horribly by digressing into talk about a horrific shipwreck.
Writer-director Östlund has a history of making his audiences uncomfortable, in causing us to ask ourselves precisely what we would have done if faced with the situations shown in his films—and I doubt there’s any viewer of an Östlund movie who genuinely comes out certain that she or he would pass muster if put to the moral test. His previous films were Involuntary (08), which packaged together a number of inconsequential but painful social scenarios, and the considerably less comic Play (11), which brought questions of class, race and social responsibility to bear on an incident of youth bullying, observed at a cool distance in surveillance style. Force Majeure belongs to what you might call the genre of “middle-class squirm” fiction, which asks (or pressures) its viewer, or reader, to identify with complacent bourgeois characters who hysterically try to deny the truth of their own guilt in a crisis. In cinema, Michael Haneke’s Caché (05) is a prime example, while a recent literary case is the Dutch novel The Dinner by Herman Koch, adapted last year by Menno Meyjes, and about to be remade by Cate Blanchett.
Tomas is indeed squeezed horribly in Force Majeure, and so indeed is everyone. His son starts sulking, then blurts out that he’s worried his parents will divorce. The contagious nature of people’s traumas emerges when the film follows Mats and Fanny back to their room after the evening with their friends, and we see how Tomas’s ordeal is affecting their sleep: Fanny can’t resist telling Mats that he would have acted just as badly himself, whereas a younger guy she knows, one Filip, would surely have passed the test. As for Ebba, she’s shattered by the idea that her husband has failed the most basic test of a father’s atavistic protective instincts, but in any case, she has already started to question this whole marriage business. She’s shocked to hear another married Swedish woman at the resort talking about her open marriage—to Ebba, it just doesn’t compute—but later, she’s on the phone to a female friend and laughing approvingly at news of her affair. Tomas listens ashen-faced in the foreground, all his male certainties wiped out.
There are some delicious bitter comic touches—like the slow camera creep forward, which reveals that Tomas is trying to peel off a decal that someone, we never learn who, has stuck on his door (you have to peer a bit, but it depicts a chicken). And there are moments of agony that hit a Bergman register—Tomas crying on the floor while the children pile onto him in helpless support, shrieking for their daddy. But Östlund tends to give the anguish a cold comic twist, too. After Tomas has abjectly fallen to pieces in the corridor (“I’m a victim too!”), Ebba has to persuade a hotel worker, who’s witnessed the whole scene from afar, to let them back into their room.
But the film’s cruelest moment is a farcical vignette that recalls some of the cartoonish everyday horror in Involuntary. Tomas and Mats are sitting outside with a beer, having repaired their damaged manhood on a bonding jaunt in the mountains. A young woman comes up to Tomas and tells him that her friend thinks that he’s the most attractive man there. Even at a distance, you can see Tomas glow a little; then she comes back and announces that it was a mistake, her friend meant some other guy. The sharpness in Östlund’s comic touch comes in the way that he won’t let go, but has the scene play out longer than the comedy, as Mats starts bristling, itching for a fight with a man who’s walked into shot.
There’s definitely a touch of Caché about the film: the pitilessness, the long static shots, the impersonally clean luxury of the enclosed tourist world it evokes, with even the warm brown pine of the hotel décor coming to look antiseptically fake and unwelcoming. There’s also a very Haneke-esque touch to the enigmatic shots of the family in their mirrored bathroom, where you may find yourself wondering nervously where Wenzel’s camera is hidden. I suspect it’s been digitally erased, but the effect is unsettling, making us feel very intrusive indeed, yet uncomfortably close to these people.
The story ends with a delicious bit of ambivalence, the family’s final ski outing (the film is divided into chapters for each day), in which, as I read it, Tomas colludes in an outrageous bit of theater engineered by Ebba to help him regain his tenuous status as alpha male. The film could have ended perfectly here; I’m not sure about the enigmatic coda, which leaves the story, and a huge swathe of cast, dangling in uncertainty. This might be the clever grace note that sends us out with one further unsettling pinch, or it might just be superfluous; after two viewings, I’m still not sure. It doesn’t damage the film, though; this is still a confident and provocative piece that, as I’m hardly the first critic to point out, you should think twice about choosing as a date movie.