So… a man runs away from an impending avalanche, leaving his wife and two young children behind.
That’s it. That’s the basis for this talky, incomprehensibly narrow minded “view of modern marriage” being touted as some brilliantly enlightened masterpiece. Indeed, Force Majeure (Latin for “superior force”, though typically translated as “unavoidable accident”) is making the arthouse rounds in preparation for an end of the year run at the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar next February and what an over-praised pile of yellow snow it is.
The main thesis here is that someone, acting out of self-preservation and fear, needs to be reprimanded and made to feel guilty for doing so. Really guilty. End of their rope guilty. That not standing by his wife and kids as a potential threat arrives turns an otherwise caring husband into a partnership question mark. Perhaps those without experience in relationships can coo and caw over such an idea, but for anyone whose suffered through far more trivial tirades with their significant other, it’s all cinematic bullshit.
Force Majeure is a one-off conversation between couples amplified into a near two hour anti-male screed. It makes men out to be selfish pigs while women are grounded goddesses doing what’s right for the biological clan (or themselves, as one affair-bragging wife and mother suggests). Add a oversized dude in a dress and you’d have the makings of a Tyler Perry movie. In the us vs. them dynamic established, our females are all fine with their self-aggrandizement. The guys, on the other hand, have to feel shame for simply being human.
Take, for example, a side story featuring family friend Mats (Kristofer HIvju) and his new 20 year old concubine Fanni (Fanni Metelius). Naturally, she is on the side of Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) who believes her husband Tomas’ (Johannes Kuhnke) cowardice demands addressing, and while engaging in a bit of pillow talk, she scolds her older lover for “not taking care” of his own kids. Mats explains he has an ex-wife, she has custody, and that he spends as much time with his former family as he can. Her response? So why didn’t he bring them to the mountains for this skiing weekend? The obvious answer can be seen as the couple quasi-canoodle, half dressed, in their resort bed.
But it goes further than this. Tomas is dismissed as a breadwinner, always “too concerned” about work and his cellphone to spend time with his grade school age kids. There’s hints of past problems, since the children are concerned that their parents “will divorce”, but it’s all innuendo. It’s all “let’s blame Dad for taking on the role society demands that he take” while simultaneously condemning him for instinctually reacting to a nature disaster playing out before his eyes. Sure, the end result is that everyone was/is safe (– the avalanche is “controlled” by the ski lodge, all the tourists there have to suffer through is a mist-like snow cloud — but who would know that at the time?
So why celebrate the mother for taking her kids and hiding under the table? Why paint father as a fiend for not doing so? Certainly, Force Majeure wants to have the discussion, to argue dedication to self ends when you biologically bring other lives into this world. And yet, this conversation really isn’t about protecting the kids. It’s about Ebba’s ongoing emasculation of her man. She realizes he took off because of fear, pats herself on the back for not doing so, and even quasi-understands his reaction.
And yet for the next hour, all she does is hound and harass him, making sure he “gets” how “wrong” he was. It’s the cold shoulder. It’s the silent treatment. it’s even the movie going meta, offering a scene where Tomas is told by a drunken snow bunny that he’s handsome, only to horribly humiliate him moments later by saying she was mistaken. It all ends in a pitiful crying jag, Tomas is so broken by Ebba’s endless taunts that he dissolves into a pool of self-pity. While the kids try to comfort him, Ebba sits back, aghast at what she accomplished (and yet secretly satisfied, one imagines).
The only problem is, she’s just as selfish. During the finalé, a logistically challenged bus driver threatens everyone on board their shuttle to the airport, mostly due to his inability to navigate his massive motor along the winding mountain roads. Just when it looks like he will drive the vehicle off one of the many embankments, Ebba freaks out. She immediately gets off the bus — without her kids — and flees, refusing to step foot back on the transport. She even convinces most of the passengers (including her husband, Mats, and Fanni) to follow her. Feeling a small sense of retribution, Tomas smokes a cigarette in defiance. Wow. Point made. Two hours lost.
The chilly French Alps setting provides a bit of subtext, but director Ruben Östlund (who got his start making skiing films) can’t translate pretty pictures into actual ideas. We’re just constantly reminded that this part of Europe is beautiful, and that technology has taken most of the guess work out of keeping visitors safe from avalanches.
But we are supposed to be stunned — and humored, as this is pitched as a “black comedy” — by what happens over this five day holiday. We are supposed to side with Ebba, condemn Tomas, and then giggle with recognition when she herself gets a comeuppance. It’s an idea with a lot of potential, none of which this movie explores.
Instead, Force Majeure allows a gender-bias to take over, turning everything into an episode of The View. Winning the Jury Prize at Cannes means very little when your efforts don’t translate into actual entertainment. Force Majeure make have spoken to those voting for various awards, but as a statement about marriage, parenthood, and responsibility, it’s artificial and superficial.