The most dramatic scene in Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s engrossing and perceptive Force Majeure occurs roughly ten minutes into the film and is one of those moments that divide time into before and after. An attractive Swedish family (Tomas and Ebba, and their children, Vera and Harry) are on a five-day vacation at a French ski resort. The idea, as Ebba explains to a fellow guest, is for Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), who has been working too hard, to “focus on his family,” turn off his cell phone, and have fun. In that brief exchange at the reception desk, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) manages to compress volumes of information about modern middle-class expectations of fatherhood and marriage.
The first day of the holiday—parents and kids skimming down the easy slope—is a lot of fun, despite the ominous booming intended to set off controlled avalanches on the gorgeous, craggy mountains looming just above, and regardless of how the headlights of the maintenance vehicles plowing the snow resemble tanks fronting a nocturnal military invasion. A thrumming orchestral soundtrack and portentous interior and exterior shots make the popular ski resort evoke a midcentury-modern Alpine version of the grand hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining.
On the second day, the family is having lunch on a sunny restaurant terrace with a spectacular view of the nearby mountains. In one of the film’s many well-observed small moments, Tomas asks his son to give back the cell phone with which the boy (who, like so many modern kids, spends a lot of time staring at screens) has been playing. There’s a loud noise, some rumbling—and an avalanche comes rolling directly toward terrace, kicking up clouds of fog and snow. It’s controlled, Tomas declares with confidence. But apparently it isn’t, and the snow keeps coming. People scream, the diners jump up from their tables, everything happens rapidly and chaotically. If you’re looking away from the screen to avoid watching what you may fear is imminent disaster, you will miss the frames in which Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) grabs his cell phone and runs away in panic, leaving Ebba clutching the terrified children, who yell for their daddy.
It is a disaster, but of a different sort than one may have anticipated. The dust and snow clears, no one’s hurt. It was controlled, after all. At first everyone’s simply relieved. And then it begins to dawn on the family (half consciously on the stunned children, all too clearly on Ebba) that Tomas has run away and left them to die. The remainder of the film sets out to persuade us— even those who, like myself, have often resisted suggestions that men (or most men) behave one way and women (or most women) another—that indeed men and women are less alike than we might have thought, or hoped. What happens in the aftermath of Tomas’s flight seems characteristic of gender differences we may have observed: variant attitudes about the family and the self, a different set of personal and societal expectations.
When Ebba mentions his desertion in front of another couple at the ski lodge, Tomas gaslights her: She’s mistaken. She may have her own (flawed) interpretation of what happened, but no, he didn’t run away. The actors play these scenes in ways that make one wonder why contrition is so difficult for men, and so relatively easy for women. Ebba is wondering the same thing. But what can she do? Tomas has turned her trauma into a “He said, She said” situation, and since they are loving parents, it would never occur to them to involve the children as witnesses to the event, arbiters of the truth. The children intuit what’s occurred without knowing how to express it, and they become confused and withdrawn; soon after, Harry, sensing the tension between his mother and father, begins to cry and says he’s afraid that his parents will divorce. Like Ebba, we understand how shameful it would be for Tomas to admit what’s occurred. But we too want him to admit something.
Ebba’s only recourse is to recount the whole story when their friend Mats comes to stay at the resort with his young girlfriend, Fanny. Ebba’s delivery, Tomas’s response—and finally the video on Tomas’s cell phone—make it painfully clear that Ebba is telling the truth, and all four adults are shocked by what Tomas did, by the prospect of how it might affect the couple’s marriage, and by the sheer discomfort of the social situation.
While Fanny comforts the distraught Ebba, Mats stays calm, in solidarity with his friend Tomas, and even gives him a little arm punch of fraternal support and affection. Played by Kristofer Hivju, who appears in HBO’s _Game of Throne_s, Mats is an imposing man with a showy mane of red hair and a thick, carefully groomed red beard. The joke is that he may resemble a Viking warrior but is in fact, like his friend, a middle-class, middle-aged mess. Mats, who has divorced his wife and left his kids, falls apart when Fanny accuses him of belonging to an older generation of males, unevolved brutish idiots compared to the more conscious, sensitive, and responsible young men closer to her own age.
Does any residue of the Viking spirit still exist in the modern father dutifully pushing a baby stroller through the streets of Stockholm? Like the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic novel-memoir—I found myself thinking of Östlund’s film as My Struggle on Ice—Force Majeure suggests that this question is very much on the minds of Scandinavian men, who live in countries where the concept of gender equality is deeply embedded in the social system. Or men everywhere, for all I know. What do males expect of themselves at this historical moment, and what do women want from them? In the film, as in life, questions of masculinity collect around blunt manifestations of bravery and fear, and around confrontations with nature, regardless of how civilized people think they are. A final twist near the end underlines the extent to which our notions of freedom, courage, and the survival instinct are privately and publicly determined along gender lines.
After the truth about Tomas’s cowardice emerges, everything he and Mats do is tinged with self-consciousness and becomes (at least in their minds) a test of masculinity. The film is very good on the ways in which scrutiny and self-scrutiny distort ordinary behavior so that nothing can be spontaneous or natural. The two men attempt a day of challenging, off-the-trails skiing which devolves into a discussion and demonstration of the effectiveness of primal scream therapy. There is an excruciatingly awkward encounter with two women beside the hotel pool, a trivial misunderstanding that deals yet another blow to the men’s pride. And Tomas has a dramatic meltdown that moves from the hotel hallway and into the room with his understandably anxious children. In an effort to prove his bravery, Tomas takes his family on a dangerous and foolish expedition, and in her desire to hold things together and convince herself that her husband is still the leader of their household, Ebba goes along with his risky plan.
Though Tomas and Ebba’s marriage may be falling apart, the rituals of middle-class family life—healthy breakfasts, pizza dinners—remain securely in place. Near the start of the film, Östlund seems to devote an excessive amount of time to shots of the family members brushing their teeth. But this too reveals an ingenious design: day by day we can track, in the bathroom mirror and over the whirring of electric toothbrushes, the speed with which the happy, healthy Swedish family is turning into a haggard quartet of haunted, tormented souls.
Even as it is conveying disquieting truths, the film manages to be ruefully, understatedly, and mischievously funny. In the opening sequence a photographer from the hotel is directing the family to assume a series of poses. As he instructs Ebba and Tomas to tilt their heads lovingly together, there’s a wince-inducing crash when their helmets collide. Mats’s response to his friend’s shaming is a comical recreation of the embarrassment many of us have have felt when a couple we know chooses a friendly social occasion to disclose some vexing personal problem. And there’s a wonderful moment involving a toy drone with which Tomas and the children have been playing.
Östlund gets astonishingly delicate, nuanced performances out of his cast. I can’t think of a recent film in which children seem as natural, as credible, and as fully complicated as their parents, as they do in the stellar portrayals of Vera and Harry by the real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren, aged eleven and eight. If one’s mind wanders at all, it’s to note the pitfalls that the film, which won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and is the Swedish contender for the Oscar, avoids. It’s never obvious or sentimental, never predictable, nor does it descend into domestic soap opera. It’s as explosive and as controlled as the walls of ice and snow tumbling down the mountain.
Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure is now showing in New York and Los Angeles