‘Force Majeure’: Who are you, exactly?      

October 24, 2014

force majeure

Everyone, at some point, wonders how they would react to a split-second emergency. Fight or flight? Leap into action or race for the exit? Or simply crumble?

That’s the question at the center of the wickedly chilly “Force Majeure,” a movie about a momentary decision that may lead to a lifetime of doubt. Can you live with that? Good question.

In this film by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongali) have taken their two small children – both under 10 – on a ski trip to the French Alps. But partway through the vacation, something happens that changes everything.

The family is having breakfast before a morning of skiing, sitting on the outdoor veranda of a mountaintop ski lodge. There’s the sound of an explosion in the distance: It’s part of the regular effort to trigger controlled avalanches to make the slopes safer.

As the family and the rest of the diners watch, a tidal wave of snow heads down the slope right toward the lodge. No worries, someone says, it will stop before it gets here.

Except that it doesn’t seem to be stopping – and, as the cloud of snow thunders closer, Tomas and Ebba have starkly different reactions. Ebba reaches for the children – but when she turns around, Tomas has fled.

As it turns out, the avalanche itself never reaches the lodge, though the veranda disappears in a cloud of snowy fog. When the fog dissipates, there’s no injury to person or property – but Tomas and Ebba’s relationship has been severely damaged.

Even worse: Though they go through the rest of the day without incident, when Ebba finally can no longer stay silent and asks Tomas why he ran away, he denies it. Is he a liar – or just a coward?

That’s the question at the center of this startlingly intense film. The tension isn’t in heated exchanges or bracing action; instead, it’s in the silence, the brooding, the doubts that creep in. Because, when he finally sees a phone-video of the event, Tomas realizes two things: that he’s been in denial about his own actions – and that he’s not the man he thought he was.

Can he live with the man he seems to actually be? Can Ebba? That’s the heart of Ostlund’s film: Can this marriage survive this incident? Should a single action define a man’s entire life, to himself or to others?

There are uncomfortable laughs in this film, mostly having to do with a deadpan service worker at their hotel, whose recurring appearances inevitably are inopportune. There’s also a squirmy evening with another couple, who watch as Tomas and Ebbe go at each other and try to soothe the obviously overwrought feelings in play.

Kuhnke and Kongali have an ease with each other that bespeaks a long relationship – which is what makes their sudden schism that much more real. It’s wrenching to watch partners suddenly forced into the conclusion that they don’t really know each other – or themselves.

Set against dramatically gorgeous scenery, the film includes amazing footage of virginal ski slopes that are alternately inviting and ominous. That’s particularly true in a later sequence, in which a run down the mountain creates a potentially deadly situation for the whole family.

“Force Majeure” is wonderfully controlled, a film that never tips its hand and pulls you into its world. See it with someone you love – or not.


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