Dr. Donna Copeland’s
Sweden’s official entry for the Academy Awards this year is a unique and interesting film for those interested in the psychology of relationships, both from the male and female perspective. Force Majeure might conjure up memories of Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor in The Impossible in the onset, but this is not a film about survival or catastrophe. Yes, there is a minor controlled avalanche in the beginning of the film, but that is the catalyst for the behavior that is criticized throughout the rest of the narrative. Force Majeure has a more serious conversation about the concept of male and female roles in a family unit and explores them through awkward drunken scenes, uncomfortable conversations and opens up dialogue for surrounding characters and the audience.
During a holiday retreat for a family on the slopes of the Alps in France, what was meant to be a time of fun and relaxation turned stressful after a nearby, controlled avalanche came too close for comfort. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), the patriarch of the family, out of pure instinct grabs his cell phone while filming the seemingly innocent avalanche and darts away from his wife and two children. After the snow clouds dissipate, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), who is on top of her two young children, realizes that everything is fine and Tomas returns to their lunch table and they continue eating in silence. For the remainder of the trip, Ebba is so jarred by the fear she felt for her family and the distress that her husband would flee instead of protecting their family unit, that she cannot enjoy the vacation.
Writer/director Ruban Ostlund does an excellent job at evoking a sense of fear throughout the film, with the loud blasts triggering the avalanches that are meant to refresh the snow for skiers. We quickly realize that the sense of dread or anticipation isn’t about the weather elements, but instead concerning this family now that the fight or flight behavior has been put to the test. Ebba’s character is increasingly antagonistic; she is clearly the true head of the family. Even when they are with friends she is assuming control of everyone’s schedule. Her abuse of alcohol, among other things, brings in to question the same authority she is questioning her husband with over his momentary lapse.
Ostlund offers up fascinating dialogue and conversation as these two characters (and other couples they encounter on this week long trip) try to work out why they are together, who is in what role and if they should stay together. From a technical aspect, the film’s green screen shots of the avalanche and nearby mountain peaks looks laptop generated, but this is a small budget film. The cinematography for many exterior shots, however, are very well done. Force Majeure allows the viewer to step into so many different perspectives; it does a really great job of covering nearly all sides of the conversation. It’s a great way to look at human reaction, and as one character points out, most of us are not heroes when placed in dire circumstances.
Final Thought – An unusual but far reaching look at human nature through dire circumstances.
By: Dustin Chase
Force Majeure, a Swedish film written and directed by Ruben Ostlund, won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes this year. It’s a psychological exploration of male/female relationships, specifically with regard to marriage; boundaries and limit setting in unsafe situations; and ways to rid oneself of the “bad” inside. The film is extremely effective in using the camera and music to instill a sense of fear and anxiety in the viewer. For instance, as I was admiring the beautiful pristine snow scenes in the French Alps, I began to be aware of feelings of apprehension and unrest. I have no doubt this was the intention of the director to introduce the viewer to the story ahead.
Tomas, Ebba, and their two children are vacationing for a week at a ski resort so Tomas can spend more time with his family. On the second day of skiing, while they are having lunch at an outdoor café, there is a loud sound, and snow begins coming down the mountain, soon becoming an avalanche that sweeps over the diners. It is apparently under control by those in charge, but Ebba is clearly shaken, not only by the snow, but also her husband’s behavior. She doesn’t mention her concern to Tomas until they are dining with another couple in the evening. Then she gives an account that is accusatory of him, which he tries to dispute. But she will not let it go, and continues throughout the week telling her story in more and more detail and trying to enlist the support of acquaintances they’ve just met.
Several times, Mats, their male friend, defends Tomas giving him an “out” to excuse himself for his behavior, but Tomas does not seem inclined to absorb and use the information. Tomas says he doesn’t dispute his wife’s account, only her “interpretation” of it, sidestepping Mats’ attempt to help. The other couple, Mats and Fanni, find Tomas’ and Ebba’s argument very awkward, but do not leave right away. And later, we see that they have a long, heated discussion about the issues, he siding with Tomas and she with Ebba. Clearly in this instance and in Ebba’s conversation with another female acquaintance we begin to realize Ostlund wants us to think about and discuss the volatile issues he raises in the film.
The issue about boundaries and limit setting in unsafe or uncomfortable situations is shown by Mats’ and Fanni’s remaining during, and even after, the Tomas/Ebba heated argument, which precipitates an argument between them. In a more positive vein, at the end of the film, Ebba sets a limit during a bus ride, which almost everyone goes along with, and seems to be a safer choice. One person, however, chooses to remain on the bus.
Finally, the issue about ways of ridding oneself of the perceived “bad” inside is shown in the film by the motif of frequent scenes of elimination in the bathroom and Tomas finally “getting out” his discomfort inside by screaming and actually crying.
I think this picture of male-female relationships, specifically in a marriage, is an accurate reflection on reality and the different ways in which we cope with the discontents that arise. Hopefully many fruitful discussions will transpire among its audiences. Whether to its credit (or not), the film leaves a number of loose ends and unanswered questions. What happened to Ebba on the ski slope toward the end? Do the couples shown remain together? Is the answer to marital discontent an open marriage, as practiced by one acquaintance, much to Ebba’s horror? Is screaming and sobbing more effective/efficient than spending time in psychotherapy? What happened to the person who stayed on the bus?
Scenes from a marriage.
By Donna R. Copeland