In an interview with ‘The Film Programme’ on BBC Radio, Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund dryly quipped that he hoped to “increase the percentage of divorce in society” by making Force Majeure, his frostily fantastic fourth feature. And fittingly, given his ambition, Östlund’s attitude towards the idea of happy marriage is hostile from the film’s outset.
From the moment we first meet Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) & his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and watch as they struggle to show affection for each other whilst a family photo is being taken, it’s clear that some distance has developed in their relationship. Indeed, as Ebba points out later, that is why they have decided to take a short holiday in the French Alps with their two young children Vera & Harry (Clara & Vincent Wettergren).
Ebba hopes that the opportunity to spend some quality family time together will bring them all closer together as a unit and pave over any problems they have. However, an incident involving a possibly life-threatening avalanche sees Tomas prioritise his own safety over that of his family’s, systematically turning the cracks in his relationship with both Ebba & his children into canyons.
Östlund touched upon the themes of courage and cowardice before in Play, his expertly crafted exposé of Swedish racial attitudes. And here he draws on the same subject, but with a more probing depth that swirls around you like a blizzard; sending shivers down your spine and chilling you to the bone.
Against a beguiling backdrop of stark, snow-covered serenity, Östlund orchestrates a master class in writhing discomfort. The revelation that Tomas is not the patriarchal protector that he and his family perceived him to be forms the film’s emotional crux. Through DP Fredrik Wenzel’s intimate, almost invasive lens, and the naturally nuanced performances of Kongsli & Kuhnke, we watch, with unrelenting uneasiness, as the family gradually comes to this realisation.
A striking arrangement of the ‘Summer’ finale from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons adds an anxious air of foreboding to the film’s atmosphere. And a fine dusting of brisk & biting Roy Andersson-esc comedy brings a much-needed layer of levity to the film’s tone.
What truly gives the film texture, however, is the way Östlund forces the spotlight off of Tomas and on to the viewer. The ending, though overextended, shows what these characters are really willing to do to save their family. But the question Östlund wants answered is, are you willing to do the same for yours?
Director: Ruben Östlund
Writer: Ruben Östlund
Stars: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren
Runtime: 120 mins
Country: Sweden, France, Norway, Denmark