A white bourgeois family sits at an exposed rooftop restaurant in a fancy ski resort when an explosion sounds in the distance. A controlled avalanche, designed to stabilise and strengthen the snow pack, and a common occurrence at places like that. The diners, after a brief shock, look on in amusement. But the mass of snow, now unleashed and travelling down the mountain towards them, doesn’t seem to slow down. A panic spreads like wildfire as the wall of white hurtles onwards and the families scatter, running for shelter. A man grabs his phone in panic and abandons his terrified wife and children to the onslaught, dashing for the exit. But it’s a false alarm. The avalanche was no threat after all. After a minute or two the whiteout clears, and the families all return, laughing with nervous relief. The man we saw flee rejoins his family at their table, the plates and chairs are returned to their former places, but underneath the surface everything has changed.
That’s the key scene in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, and one of the best, most unsettling, darkly funny, and psyche-infesting movies of this decade. Immediately apparent in its formal brilliance — the direction, writing, performances, and cinematography all set to ‘mind-blowing’ — it nevertheless left me slightly cold when I first saw it last year. It wasn’t until a month or so later that I realised this was most likely by design.
Force Majeure is not an easy movie. Yes, it has laugh-out-loud moments scattered amongst its searing psychological insights, and yes its shots and mise en scenes are sometimes pure eye candy; but it is a film so committed to its central premise — the deconstruction and unravelling of the modern male ego and its role in the traditional family unit — that I personally only really realised how much I actually enjoyed the experience much later after the fact. I don’t exactly consider myself a fan of regressive, heteronormative gender norms, either, so I
shudder to think relish the thought of a certain cohort of — let’s generously call them ‘Ghostbusters purists’ — sitting through this narrative. In fact if we could get someone to just stealthily replace every pirated copy of the original Ghostbusters with this movie that’d be great. Can we sort that out? I want legions of spurned, fragile male egos watching this shit tonight. Cheers. I predict wilted dicks and atrophied neckbeards by sundown.
Aside from the sheer detonating power of its core conceit, Force Majeure’s other strongest assets are the aforementioned cinematography, and its central performances. Swedish actor Johannes Kunke and Norwegian actress Lisa Loven Kongsli absolutely nail their roles, with Kunke giving us a portrait of a man who fails, and then flails despairingly, alternately lashing out and prevaricating, and Kongsli presenting a woman and a mother coming to terms with a new family dynamic and unexpected reality. The beautiful thing about the latter character is that she is not reduced to a reactive function. Yes, the event that sets things in motion is her husband’s action (or rather inaction), but the way her character reacts to this is often very proactive; she ends up driving so much of what happens. The woman’s agency, unlike in so many other movies that attempt to explore similar ground, is not reduced to just a canvas for the ‘woe is me’ journey of the man.
And speaking of canvases — that bloody cinematography! Opening with a sequence of shots that show us slopes, skies, and ski lifts, all initially devoid of human life as if to show nature’s indifference to the devastating human drama about to unfold, the Kubrickian vibe is first hinted at, and later lavishly indulged in.
The actors are often filmed either in ensemble medium shots, allowing them to deftly react to each other both with dialogue and crucially revealing body language, or from further away in longer shots, allowing them to explore the frame, sometimes travelling from one end to another, and then back again — there’s an abundance of space, and yet they somehow feel trapped. It’s wonderful to watch, and the quiet emotional turmoil and psycho-social deconstruction unleashed by the controlled explosion is a spectacle to behold.
Force Majeure is the definition of a movie that worms itself into your brain, lodges itself there, and gets to work, quietly rewiring your brain.
Oh, and Tormund fuckin’ Giantsbane shows up and dispenses relationship advice. So there’s that.