Force Majeure: Vacation isn’t what it used to be

A- drama

  • Written & directed by Ruben Östlund

The carefully controlled, not-quite-natural outdoor experience of a fancy ski resort becomes a metaphor for the veneer of a troubled marriage in this Swedish drama set in the French alps.

Tomas and Ebba (Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli) take their two young children on what is meant to be five days of fun and luxury. But on their first day, while eating lunch in an outdoor restaurant with a spectacular view, an avalanche–presumably set off intentionally by the resort–appears to get out of control and threatens the lives of everyone on that patio. In the moment of danger, Tomas fails to do what is expected of a parent; or, perhaps more importantly, of a man.

Luckily, no one is hurt. At least not physically.

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At first, Tomas appears to be in denial of his failing. But Ebba won’t let him forget. Worse, she repeats the story to other people, with Tomas sitting right next to her, becoming more humiliated with every sentence.

It doesn’t take long before the situation strains their marriage. Ebba has lost all respect for her husband, and Tomas has lost all respect for himself. The kids feel the tension, and lash out at both parents.

All this is set within a resort that appears to be just a bit more realistic than Disneyland. Almost the first things we see are tubes sticking out of the snow, sending out streams of fire to selectively melt and thus sculpt the powder. Other buried machines blow the snow. The camera often lingers on the various transportation devices that move people from one place to another without exposing them to physical effort. (I should admit right now that I have no experience skiing.)

Indoors, the resort seems warm and cozy. And the avalanche appears to have had no effect on anyone except Tomas and Ebba. No one talks about danger or evacuation, new tourists arrive, and guests who didn’t happen to be in the restaurant at the right time don’t even know that it happened.

Well after the incident, a close friend of Tomas’ arrives with his much younger girlfriend. When Ebba tells once again repeats story, the friend is clearly embarrassed for Tomas’ sake, and offers a pathetic explanation. Later, this friend and his girlfriend have their own argument about a hypothetical situation.

Tomas’ self doubt seems extreme at times. In one sequence, he’s locked out of their room for apparently hours, and he never thinks to go to the front desk and get another key.

 Force Majeure comes very close to having a too-convenient ending. But writer/director Ruben Östlund sidesteps the issue in an unexpected way.

On one level, Force Majeure is about courage and fear, and about the destructive behavior that can (but doesn’t have to) destroy a marriage. On another, it’s about the artificial worlds we create for our own enjoyment. But on a deeper level, it’s about what we hide in order to go on with our lives.

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