The Alps. A ski resort nestled inside them like the interior of a snow globe, absolutely blanketed in the white. It’s both isolated and inviting, cold and warm at the same time. The movie, Force Majeure, is the kind of film in which you can get happily lost. There’s a sense of being pushed right up to the foreground. It probably helped that I was sitting in the front row of the theater, but it’s also a testament to the camera-work of the film’s cinematographer, Fredrick Wencil. Wencil’s camera is comfortably up close, a front-row spectator in the very personal lives of its subjects, a Swedish family vacationing for a week in the French Alps. But the camera also lingers over the captivating landscape, letting us take in the vastness of the mountaintops, the quiet, the grandeur, the strangely comforting smallness we feel in the presence of such grand beauty. Not enough movies take the time to savor imagery, especially when the image is something as breathtaking as the Alps. But this movie does. The setting is starkly gorgeous by day and hauntingly enchanting by night. Either way, it feels completely other-worldly.
But the family that is the central focus of Force Majeure puts the film firmly on the ground. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) is the husband, a businessman who’s apparently detached from his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and children, Vera and Harry (played by Clara and Vincent Wettergren), who are about 10 and 7 years old respectively. When Ebba runs into an old acquaintance at the ski lodge, she half-jokes—within earshot of her husband—that the trip is a chance for the family to reconnect, for Tomas to spend a little less time thinking about work. Tomas is sort of well-trained in the art of appeasing his wife at the surface level. When his phone rings, he looks at it, but then says, “I’ll turn it off.” He’s learned the right things to say, even if it hasn’t changed what he actually does.
Force Majeure opens up the dynamic between Tomas and Ebba by using a device: a near-catastrophe—in this case an avalanche—where Tomas’s actions throw some pretty unflattering light on his character. Ebba’s trust in their relationship begins to unravel, and the movie takes a deftly comic look at the moral underpinnings of human beings and how the urge to survive may trump the urge to protect others. The film manages to take seriously the emotions of its characters without enshrining them. These are, after all, well-to-do white people whose only real moment of crisis is an avalanche that doesn’t actually harm them. They’re not struggling to put food on the table, they don’t live in a violent, crime-ridden neighborhood. They can afford week-long ski trips in the French Alps.
The movie adroitly balances the self-righteousness and genuine gut-wrenching pain Ebba feels, with the shallow selfishness mixed with real isolated hurt of her husband Tomas. (Both of the actors are terrific, by the way.) Writer-director Ruben Östlund is generous to his characters, and fills the movie with amusing little touches, like a scene where Tomas and a male friend are mistakenly hit on by two women at an outside bar. One of the girls comes over and tells Tomas, “My friend says you’re the most attractive man here.” She wanders away after Tomas is vaguely unresponsive (he’s not sure how to act, being married but unhappy in his relationship), and then, just as Tomas puffs up with macho self-confidence, the woman returns and says, “I’m sorry. I was mistaken. My friend meant somebody else.” Subtly, we see the vast range of feelings in Tomas. He is by turns flattered, aroused, curious, mentally unfaithful, and then embarrassed and proud, trying to laugh the experience off with his friend.
There’s also a powerful and hilarious scene between Tomas and Ebba and the children. Tomas has been fake crying, finally realizing he needs to acknowledge his own selfishness if only to pacify Ebba. But she calls him on it. Then he really does tear up as he admits to her how horrible he is. But the tears are purely for himself. He’s a victim of his own bad behavior, and self-pity is the thing that opens his tear ducts. He weeps uncontrollably until finally the children are awakened. When they see him, burying his face in a bean bag chair and wailing, they climb onto him, wrap their arms around him, and cry too. Ebba stands over them, exasperated by the scene, until Vera drags her into to the family crying blob. How many different feelings are going on in this one scene? More than you’ll find in most movies in their entirety.
There are a few small problems. The film is almost unbearably uncomfortable and tense at times. Occasionally, the characters begin to grate on the nerves. And it could have been sped up ever so slightly. But overall, the movie is dramatically well-paced. Östlund knows just when to ratchet up the dramatic conflict, and he knows how to work his performers at the right moments. They become so very real to us that we like them even with their flaws. And the movie doesn’t automatically side with Ebba, even if Tomas is clearly suffering—as he would call it—from being a self-loving prig. (He’s not just that. Neither of them can be reduced to one character trait, good or bad.)
What strikes me most about Force Majeure is that it feels nourishing to see a movie this good about the selfishness and the brokenness and the humor of human relationships. It feels honest and raw, but it’s not dramatically self-indulgent, which is why the moments of great drama feel like little gifts. And it’s a movie that isn’t afraid—thank you European filmmakers—to be a movie: a story that is held together visually. I’m all for talk, when it’s as clever or juicy as in a movie like All About Eve (or even the occasional Quentin Tarantino gab-fest), but real human relationships, at their core, are about what’s left unsaid. And Force Majeure gets at this so beautifully, so vividly, and with a leavening sense of humor and an indulgent (in a good way) appetite for beauty.