Whenever a perfect little family poses for a picture like the one taken in the opening scene of Force Majeure, you pretty much know they’re in for some trouble. It’s an oft-used trope showing how easily people can slip into a display of happiness, showing how perception can sometimes count for everything — we touched on a similar scene in our discussion of Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, a film which is on the whole a good touchstone for the themes of Force Majeure. Though the Swedish film suffers slightly from swaths of introspection that last just a bit too long, Force is still one of the most well-crafted family dramas of the past year.
That family is dad Tomas, mom Ebba, little daughter Vera and littler son Harry. They’re on a weeklong getaway at a beautiful mountainside resort in the French Alps for some skiing and relaxation. It’s family time, which Ebba subtly notes has been a much-needed side effect of Tomas’s busy work schedule. This is precious time, so the family does everything together. They ski together, they brush their teeth together, they sleep together on the big master bed. They eat lunch together. They get engulfed by an avalanche together. Family stuff.
That last family activity — getting walloped by an avalanche during an otherwise calm lunch — was admittedly one they did not expect. Tomas, in a moment of panic, flees the vicinity as the wall of snow approaches. This act of instinct is the cause of the ensuing rift in Force Majeure, as Ebba’s concern with Tomas leaving his family behind in a moment of danger grows in the hours following the avalanche (which ends up just being a fast-moving cloud of harmless powder), and grows greater still as the week goes on. To make matters worse, Tomas insists that he never left the table during the avalanche. A few tangentially awkward conversations later, the floodgates open and Ebba accuses Tomas outright of abandoning his family to save himself.
Thus does the matter of perception — first noted during that opening scene where the four skiers pose happily for a photo — come to the forefront in Force Majeure. Tomas seems convinced that he never left the table, and it’s far easier for one to sympathize with Ebba during this part of the film because we saw Tomas flee just as she did. It’s even recorded on Tomas’s phone — but still he holds fast, conceding only that it looks as if he fled. As the husband-wife strife flows over and begins affecting their children and their friends, Tomas retreats for a day of skiing alone with his friend Mats. “Have you had much time for skiing?” Mats asks. Tomas shrugs and says no, that he’s “been mostly with the family.” Here, too, Tomas’s perspective is skewed and at odds with that of his wife, because she stated earlier that this was their family time.
This theme of perception ties in beautifully with another theme of Force Majeure, that of the indiscriminate power of nature, and both themes come to a head during the avalanche scene. Tomas assures everyone that the avalanche is “controlled” and set intentionally by the resort groundskeepers, who know what they’re doing. Though he’s right about the avalanche eventually proving to be harmless, he’s vastly mistaken in his estimation of man’s power over nature. His instincts — and the instincts of Ebba, their children, their friends, everyone at the resort and everyone in the world — are all tied to nature and, to a degree, dictated by it. Tomas’s values as a father may in fact run against his display of self-preservation during the crisis, but they effectively cease to matter in the face of nature, the uncontrollable ultimate.
Interestingly, Force Majeure is filmed with such precision and leveled calm that the sense of natural forces encroaching on human control is thrown into further review. The completely stationary camera during the avalanche and during a scene where Tomas and Mats sit at a bar is reminiscent of the camera in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Both cameras are calm, somewhat cold, essential in the role of microscope underneath which these characters squirm. Really one of the only qualms with Force, then, is the same problem that Somewhere runs into — the tension is undeniable, but the actual emotional impact doesn’t measure to nearly the same enormity. There’s a distance created by this measured filming, and more often than not that distance is thought-provoking but never truly affecting.
This is especially true in the long patches of slightly-repetetive navel-gazing throughout Force. At best, the landscapes are used as a depiction of that natural volatility. In movies like The Dark Valley, well-shot mountainscapes can become a character of their own. But in Force Majeure the sloping Alps are nearly plot points, utterly threatening in the stillness of their unpredictability. Aside from a desire to feel even closer to these characters in order to really connect with their perceptions and their instincts, Force Majeure does a beautiful job bringing those mountain-sized themes onto a man-sized stage.