You are out somewhere in the company of your close-knit family. You are a healthy family with a strong bond established over the years. You are well-respected in your family and everyone looks up to you. It's a happy, glorious day and everyone's having a good time. And suddenly out of nowhere, you are faced with a possible force majeure, a so-called act of God, an unforeseen cataclysmic event. You act on impulse, the first thing that comes to your mind, albeit not the most ideal thing to do. In the end, everyone is safe and sound. But your instinctive reaction becomes a parameter of your being and significantly ends up altering your image in the eyes of your loved ones.
Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund presents an unusual scenario such as this, hardly ever explored in cinema, as the central premise of his refreshingly original new film, "Force Majeure" (2014). A sweet, happy little family of four, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two kids go out on a skiing trip to the French Alps. It's all going well until at lunch one day, there occurs, what's actually a controlled avalanche charging straight towards the family.
Only it appears to go a little too out of control, prima facie, giving everyone a shock of their lives. As a result, Tomas who initially rubbishes any possibility of danger, suddenly goes for the run the next second, seemingly as a reflex, leaving the kids and his wife behind. The avalanche, sure enough, settles at a safe distance. The frame goes all white. And then the thick fog clears within a minute. Everyone returns to their table. No harm done, no one is hurt. Well, not physically at least, but this controlled avalanche triggers an almost uncontrollable avalanche of emotions that disturbs the peace of the family.
Via some clever writing and characterization, deliciously soaked in some savagely funny dark humour, Östlund presents a fascinating psychological study of differing perceptions and varying magnitudes of reaction to a single incident. Through the situation of a genuine scare and the petrifying feeling of having had a brush with death, Östlund explores a shift in family dynamics and several other quirks of human nature that lay exposed in the aftermath. On one hand, he examines a man's primal instinct in the face of death or any other grave danger. On the other, he paints a very realistic and instantly relatable picture of the effects of this action on his image stemming from the judgmental tendencies of others around him, specifically his loved ones.
Post the episode, Ebba is broken-hearted. She loses sleep and develops a strong feeling of doubt and insecurity. A sense of trust built over the years in her husband is suddenly shattered. The hilarity of it all stems from how Ebba is simply unable to let go of the incident and the feeling. She even harps on about how Tomas remembered to take his phone along but didn't bother to look at the kids (a dig at the addiction of the modern man to his phone?). In the end it is all fine, but she keeps bringing the topic up in front of complete strangers, and ends up making a whole gathering rather awkward to sit through. It is not unconvincing at all, given Ebba's take on the whole definition of family bonding and mutual trust, which we are given a hint of in an earlier scene in which she gets all worked up about a supposedly committed female friend's casual wantonness.
In one of the best scenes of the film, Tomas' old friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) visits with his very young girlfriend. A drunk Ebba brings up the subject again, leaving the atmosphere all unpleasant and Tomas all embarrassed and dejected. Mats breaks the ice with a long explanation, all the while defending his old pal with justifications that range from extremely logical to immensely hilarious.
Kudos to Mr. Östlund for penning and directing such obvious reactions from his characters, given their personae. We can't help but chuckle at the ensuing debate and the farce of it all, despite seeing a weepy, disappointed Ebba on screen and her nervous restlessness. But for all her quashed expectations about her husband, and allegations of irresponsibility, we get a glimpse of how Ebba's own sense of responsibility is questionable, in at least two nuanced scenes that Östlund slyly inserts. And just when we think the genius can't go any farther, we see the baton of over-analysis being passed on to this new couple of Mats and his girl who continue the argument all the way to their own hotel room. Mats is now all sleepless, the bug firmly planted in his head, fueled by an innocuous passing remark made by his girl. Brilliant writing all the way!
Meanwhile, all poor Tomas needs is a slight ego boost after a mighty fall in his wife's eyes, and in yet another outstanding sequence in an open bar on the Alps, he gets one, only momentarily. Adding to his woes is a chicken sticker stuck on his hotel room door that he furiously goes on to remove. It could very well have been put there by the kids playing around and the cartoon of the chicken a mere coincidence, but it adds a funny little salt-in-the-wound touch. But one can't rule out the possibility of it being an anonymous prank either. Could it be Ebba who does it just to rub it in? Or that mysterious house-keeping guy who always watches the couple from a distance? He doesn't fit in curve of the film except as merely an observer who somehow reminds of the enigmatic silent observer seen in Krzysztof Kieślowski's "The Decalogue".
Östlund is careful not to miss out the finer details while focusing on his primary characters, and thus ensures that he also shifts the spotlight on the kids once in a while. The children begin to realize that something is amiss between their parents and are scared that they might divorce. Peace and family harmony seems to be irrevocably destroyed, at least until the final act. But a meticulous writer that Östlund is, he skilfully avoids contrivances and cliches and wraps it up in a very satisfying and convincing manner. He even adds a tinge of some romanticism and a fairy tale flavour that references a pertinent point about how we have all grown up hearing fables of heroism and chivalry, but reality is a completely different ball game.
Östlund pulls it off with stupendous performances from all of the primary cast, most notably, Lisa Loven Kongsli as the emotional wreck, Ebba and Kristofer Hivju, as Mats. Hivju gets about three major scenes and completely chews the scenery with his bravura supporting act. If it is not the drama that keeps you transfixed while you enjoy the engaging character interactions, it is the fabulous cinematography that captures the beautiful landscapes of the Alps that mesmerize you and entice you to go on a skiing trip.
"Force Majeure" is a unique, sparkling little gem of a dramedy from the Scandinavian land that deserves all the attention. Standing ovation, Mr. Ruben Östlund.