Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure” begins with a postcard perfect image of bourgeois life. The screen goes pitch black, polite voices discuss a photo opportunity and suddenly emerges a foggy white expanse of snow that reveals an attractive young couple and their children posing for a picture, the sublime French Alps looming behind them in the backdrop. The husband Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), the wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two kids Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) are on vacation at an upscale ski resort. If this were a Luis Buñuel film (think “Exterminating Angel” or “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”), the human rot at the center of the bourgeois ideal would be savagely attacked with surrealist humor. But instead of goats and bears and suicides in closets and dinners at the funeral of a restaurant owner, we get the crashing movement of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and echoes of Michael Haneke movies.
No doubt the film could have been much better. Not because it needed to be more like Buñuel’s movies but because it could have been shorter, perhaps ending at 10 minutes instead of turning into a meandering, 120-minutes psychodrama. (Philippe Orreindy’s short film “J’attendrai le suivant…” springs to mind as an example of what can be done with less time.) The dramatic center of the film is on day 2 of the family’s five-day vacation. Tomas and Ebba and their children are sitting at an outdoor café with breathtaking views eating lunch. Their lunch is interrupted when they hear a rumbling and then see an avalanche roll towards them. At first, unperturbed, Tomas snatches his iPhone from the table to immortalize the spectacle in pixels (for whom? I would imagine envious friends back home, or just as well the viewer). Struck with the peculiar millennial inclination to selfie every waking moment, Tomas ignores his wife and kids’ worries and keeps on beaming an easy smile enthralled as he is by the photo opp. Enthrallment turns into the brute instincts of self-preservation when fearing that unlike the other controlled avalanches this one is real, Tomas and other diners’ survival instincts kick in, and they bolt for safety. As he prepares to flee, Tomas grabs his iPhone and gloves, leaving his wife and kids behind alone. Nothing happens, but the family, while physically unscathed, will never be the same again. The rest of the film explores the psychological fallout of Tomas’s unmanly actions.
On the surface, the film might be said to explore the patriarchal fantasies of valor and heroism women have come to expect men to fulfill (case in point: Ebba staging a scene for Tomas to rescue her in front of the kids to restore their father’s honor) or to offer insight into the foibles of a bourgeois marriage in crisis, neither of which would be inaccurate. But I think the film also explores the elaborate lies we tell ourselves, and those closest to us, to keep up a façade of well-adjusted bourgeois normality. Therein lies the problem with the length of the film. The psychodrama that unfolds after the scene at the café somehow obscures the scripts the characters perform to reassure each other in the games they play to sustain a false but predictable life. Take Mats (Kristofer Hivju), Tomas’s friend, who upon watching video evidence of Tomas running away from his family rationalizes an explanation for his friend’s cowardly behavior. The general consensus, from Grand Turk to the French Alps: a man is not supposed to abandon his family. Rather than confront Tomas’s actions, Mats comes up with an elaborate exculpation for his friend’s behavior. Left unchallenged is the very premise underlying the expectation for Tomas to behave heroically and selflessly because he is a man. These are the scripts we perform. At first, they become habits and routines and, overtime, unquestioned norms. Once they accept these scripts, people reconcile themselves to the expectations that underlie them and thereby enter into games not dissimilar from the role of victim Ebba plays for Tomas to come to her rescue. Every victim needs a perpetrator and a saver. These scripts assume many social forms (including patriarchal fantasies) but they also range more broadly to encompass our entire social lives.
Tomas, Ebba and their children, the nuclear family society holds up as successful emblems of middle-class stability and security, are ultimately revealed, in the course of the film, as frail and deceitful. The closing scene with the vacationers stranded on a road leaves the viewer not convinced that Tomas and Ebba have survived and emerged renewed from an internal dystopian wilderness but rather more solidly rooted in the delusions of domesticity and conventionality. The scales have not fallen from their eyes.