Relationships can survive through a lot but there are some things that are just too difficult, if not impossible, to get over. In Force Majeure, writer/director Ruben Östlund tackles one of those issues with laser fire accuracy and a cense of humour that comes as a welcome, if unexpected, surprise.
Tomas, Ebba and their two kids are on a family vacation in France. The trip is going well and everyone is having a good time skiing, eating and relaxing. While having breakfast one morning, the family watches as a controlled avalanche quickly approaches the patio where their food has just arrived and rather than slowing down, it looks as though the avalanche is gaining speed and power and that it will take out the patio.
Tomas pushes someone out of the way to get to safety while Ebba’s first concern is to protect her children. And then the snow fog settles and everything is all right. People laugh off their near death experiences and Ebba and the kids go back to their breakfast and are soon joined by Tomas.
The event starts to recede from memory until, over dinner later than night, Tomas and Ebba retell the adventure to a friend. Ebba calls Tomas a coward for running off. He claims to remember the events differently. What follows in Force Majeure is nearly 90 minutes of Tomas and Ebba trying to talk their way out of this impasse that has clouded their relationship. They’re constantly arguing, they can’t see eye to eye on anything and their kids are convinced that mom and dad are going to get a divorce. There’s nothing like a near death experience to highlight who we are at our core but also to force us to reconsider and re-examine our relationships.
From the moment following the incident, Tomas and Ebba act like completely different people. They hardly look or speak to each other – she’s angry that he took off on her and the kids, he’s clearly aware of what he’s done and feels ashamed but is incapable of admitting it – and as the tension between the couple mounts, it also begins to spread; first to Ebba’s friend and her vacation fling and later to Tomas’ friend and his girlfriend. What’s fascinating is watching how these external parties react to the events and whose version of events they support and why.
The fallout of Force Majeure speaks to the stagnation of long term relationships, how we tend to tiptoe around issues to avoid rocking the boat but also on how we’re not as altruistic as we think we are. When push comes to shove, the human need to fight or flight takes over and self preservation is often the response. But as Tomas and Ebba discover, dealing with that resopnse is difficult, especially when you’ve made a commitment to unconditionally care for someone else.
Östlund uses shots of the mountain as scene transitions and as the movie progresses, those largely innocuous images of the mountain being groomed and looking majestic, accompanied by the occasional avalanche horn, ratchet the tension to breaking point.
Force Majeure is particularly memorable not only for its exploration of the dark side of human nature but for the way it does so with a biting sense of humour an razor sharp observations on how relationships work. Combined with Östlund masterful use of silence, Force Majeure is really uncomfortable to watch, particularly with your partner, but it’s certainly a great way to get the conversation flowing.
Force Majeure opens Friday, Oct. 31st at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.