“What will you do when something as disastrous as an avalanche happens? Are we expected to perform differently based on our gender?”
That is the question Östlund is trying to ask in Force Majeure by putting a Swedish couple and their two little kids in a ski resort in the French Alps. The picture of a perfectly happy family on a patio facing the majestic white mountains starts to crack after a dramatic but physically harmless avalanche occurs.
In the aftermath of the avalanche, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) find themselves in an awkward situation where their accounts of what happened on the patio differ. The awkwardness soon turns into distrust and confrontation during dinner, in which Ebba and Tomas are in the company of friends. Ebba blames Tomas for not prioritizing the safety of their children while Tomas at first refuses to admit that he runs away from his family, then later defends himself with the idea of a “survival instinct.”
Although the couple tries not to deal with their frustration in front of their children, the unusual tension between the two parents is still detected, and the children become restless and anxious as the marriage falls apart.
The plot sounds like a usual family melodrama, but with each passing confrontation between Ebba and Tomas, the audience, as well as the other couples in the film, start to imagine and question their respective partner’s reaction in a hypothetical avalanche.
The distance between the camera and the character also allows the audience to follow and reflect on the gender roles exemplified by the relationship rupture, without being too stirred by the emotional breakdown.
In fact, the film looks perfectly staged and unreal at times despite the realistic and natural performances from the cast. The coldness and remoteness that overshadows the entire film not only comes from the snow, but also from the sharp precision of mise-en-scene and the camera angles that make the characters seem trivial compared to their formidable natural surroundings.
That being said, there is some dark humor that breaks the awkward and uncomfortable situation from time to time. There are also musical intervals in between scenes that are bizarre and almost comical, relieving some of the tension that builds up over the film.
With Ebba and Tomas’s experience, Östlund offers an ambivalent understanding of a relationship undergoing crisis in this film where there is neither solace nor penance.
While Ebba and Tomas suffer from their socially assigned gender roles, they do not seek to subvert it.
Following their dispute is a process of readjustment and reintegration with the hope of making Tomas’s ego compatible again with his role as the male leader of the family. With this resolution, the film fulfills its task of examining the complexity of marriage and socialization of self without critically challenging the ordinary perception on family values and gender norms.
Please join us for a free screening of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, Wednesday March 11, at 8pm at Artspace, 378 Aylmer Street (between Hunter and Simcoe). All are welcome!