Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are a Swedish married couple on holiday at a posh ski resort in the French Alps. They have two charming kids, Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wetterngren), who stick close to them everywhere they go. Anytime, anywhere, they all look content. What you'd call a functional family.
On a given afternoon, they go for lunch to an outdoor café up on the mountains, with a panoramic view of the slopes. All of a sudden, a controlled avalanche seems to snowball out of control. As everybody panics, Ebba immediately protects the children whereas Tomas grabs his smartphone from the table and rushes out of the picture, leaving his family behind.
The good thing is that the apparently dangerous avalanche is actually a residual cloud from distant explosions. So in the end nobody gets hurt. Better said: nobody gets "physically hurt," for the emotional wounds due to Tomas’ abandoning his family may never heal.
So in Ruben Ostlund's Force majeure you have a tragedy that actually never happens, and a tragic event of personal dimensions — fleeing instead of protecting your loved ones. Add denial, for Tomas initially won't acknowledge what he did. He says he just doesn´t share his wife’s version and that he remembers it differently. But when he's asked to say how exactly he remembers it, he won't talk at all. Maybe because lying in full is harder than denying. At any rate, loss of trust and mutual respect are the two tragedies this couple now faces. The once seemingly perfect family may actually crumble and fall.
Then there's another couple of friends, Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and Fanny (Fanni Metelius), who intervene as improvised therapists and well-meaning listeners. Of course, they also judge Mats' behaviour, even if first they have to analyze it.
However, the issue here is not how logical or illogical the situation was, but how Ebba is going to relate to Mats knowing that in the face of a crisis he may not be there for her or the children. As for Mats, he has to live with a cowardly and ugly part of himself that makes him most unreliable and self-loathing. So the issues here lie in the terrain of deeply rooted feelings, uncontrolable emotions, and animal instinct that sometimes equals betrayal.
Very cleverly, Ostlund draws a faceted state of things by resorting to ordinary conversation, dialogue that always rings true, verbal exchanges that are immediate and recognizable. So this way, the heart of the matter is addressed in a casual manner that makes it all the more alarming. Equally important is what the characters cannot say and remains unsaid.
Force majeure is a wise film made with profound awareness of the fragility of bonds and blood ties. And it's never discursive, although a bit talky. But there's no patronizing of any kind, which doesn't mean there’s no critical gaze.
Then it’s no wonder why a feeling of uneasiness and malaise runs through the entire film. Arguably, what's most distressing is that viewers are bound to wonder what they would have done in Mat’s place. Or what your loved ones would have done in his place.
Consider that we all would like to come up with a heroic and humane answer, but it might not be that simple.
After all, there’s an instance, near the end of the film, when Ebba makes a decision out of fear that may be interpreted in different ways. Not a bad decision, but maybe a very individual one that only protects herself.
Force majeure / La traición del instinto / Tourist (Sweden / France / Norway, 2014) Written and directed by Ruben Ostlund. With Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Brady Corbet. Cinematography: Fredik Wenzel. Editing: Jacob Secher Schulsinger. Music: Ola Flottum. Produced by Philipe Bober, Erik Hemmendorff. Distributed by: Lat-E. NC13. Running time: 118 minutes.