Relationships suck. Sometimes. Or always. I don’t really know actually, but there’s a whole lot of deteriorating marriages being depicted on screen, so I’m going to chalk it up to always. I’m mostly joking, but there’s certainly a constant push-pull to the way on screen marriages in times of trouble are shown. Most of that trouble is brought on by minor events that roll into large arguments, much like, say, an avalanche.
And that’s what Force Majeure is, a weird little avalanche of a film that features a married couple, Tomas & Ebba (Johannes Kuhnke & Lisa Loven Kongsli), who find themselves in an uncomfortable position after a small, but life-changing event. On their vacation, the family experiences a controlled avalanche at their resort’s restaurant, which they and everyone else at the restaurant believes will hit them. Tomas runs away and leaves his wife and children behind, only taking his phone and gloves. When they all come out of it unscathed, things heat up, and that’s where the fun of the film begins.
In its first act, Ruben Östlund focus on his masculine father figure, Tomas, for the most part; a seemingly distant man who looks to be trying to enjoy this vacation with his wife and kids. For this period, it’s all somber, serious, and simple exposition, accompanied by some great location shots. But with the avalanche comes a shift in the marriage, as well as a shift in focus. The masculine perspective temporarily goes out the window, and we witness the way that Ebba’s confidence in her husband and her relationship disappears. Her loneliness is emphasized both in scenes where she is with her family and without, and when a friend of hers shows up to chat about life, it only further drills in that feeling of uncertainty.
“I can’t go building my entire self-esteem on being a woman in a relationship or being a mother,” her friend says, discussing her open relationship with such a casualness that’s refreshing to see on film (even if it is just to provide stark contrast to our lead). It’s a direct jab at the poor woman who is suffering through a massive crisis, and while it’s kind of a sad thing to think about, it’s rather amusing. Much of Force Majeure plays out that way though, and its nature as a dark comedy is never hidden once the snow overwhelms the family.
The balance between its bleakness and moments of hilarity are carefully calculated. But Östlund is at his most potent when he offers up scenes that could be taken any which way depending on the viewer’s perspective. When he returns the lens to Tomas, he practically puts a knife to the man’s throat until he’s as emasculated as possible. One of the most gleeful things about the film’s unfolding is the way Tomas unravels. Östlund seems to find pleasure in smashing every ounce of male entitlement this husband has, whether it’s watching two women tell him multiple times that he was absolutely not the man they thought was attractive or simply watching him sob out his heart in a hotel hallway in a manner that sounds more like laughter.
But, as smart as it is at exploring the way that couples have their relationship’s stability thrown into question, Force Majeure has a problem knowing when to pull back. Its use of supporting players for no reason other than to provide contrast for its lead couple and drag us further into their bitterness can grow tiresome. Mats and Fanny, for instance, serve their purpose well at a dinner party with our main couple, but they’re allowed a strangely abundant amount of time on screen to rehash discussions that needed no repetition. Again, tiresome, but forgivable, even if the film could have benefited from a good shave (as could Mats’ beard, amirite?) off some of its denser scenes.
And yet, had the film been left entirely alone, even going as far as to leave the incredibly grating piece of music that one is consistently assaulted with throughout, one thing would have desperately needed changing: its last ten minutes (or so). I cannot emphasize my frustration with the ending, but that’s for everyone to discover on their own. Disregarding that, Östlund makes up for most of his ill-paced moments with scenes that veer toward absurdity; an eavesdropping janitor and a barrage of half-naked men shouting and drinking the night away being two of the most noteworthy.
Every marriage comes with its fair share of issues, and Force Majeure is not exempt from that fact. But, if the film were a couple, it’d be the kind one might find themselves strangely drawn to, thanks to Ruben Östlund’s knack for nailing the varying tones that come with any good relationship. He’s a master at making each uncomfortable scene feel like an eternity, each minute stretched out and leaving you wishing you could escape, but never wanting to look away because it’s just so goddamn interesting.
Directed by Ruben Östlund; written by Ruben Östlund; starring Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Brady Corbet, Jakob Granqvist, Kristofer Hivju, and Fanni Metelius; 118 minutes.
Force Majeure is currently playing in select theaters. In Miami, it is playing exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.