My husband and I had heard that Force Majeure was a movie not to be missed, so on Black Friday we headed to our favorite theatre. The place quickly filled, and we all settled into the darkness, waiting to be engaged by the action on the screen.
The film opens with a tourist photographer taking a staged photo of the family featured in the movie: Tomas (father), Ebba (mother), Harry (son and the youngest child), and Vera (daughter). Whoever was directing the scene wanted to make it clear that there were schisms in this otherwise handsome family. The photographer had to tell them to touch one another and appear engaged. But it seemed a heavy-handed way to announce at the beginning that there’s trouble ahead for this group on their five-day vacation in the French Alps.
It would have been more effective (and dramatic) to witness the family members interacting as they settle into their rental apartment in the upscale resort. Dialogue and gestures could begin to reveal their lives and relationships with one another. Instead we had to wade through this opening gambit.
The movie then unfolds as if we are reading chapters in a book with a heading for each part: Day 1, Day 2, and so on. Each day has a different focus, and I was fine with this way of presenting the material. The scenery is stunning, and the cinematographer captures the crisp cold landscape and astonishing peaks. It’s not friendly country in the sense that one could die easily from over exposure or avalanches. And the narration is punctuated by the sound of explosions, as crews set off “controlled” avalanches in the surrounding slopes.
One of them almost engulfs the restaurant where the family has just been served lunch on the terrace. At first, in the white cloud that takes over the screen, viewers believe that there is a real threat. So does Tomas, the father, who takes off, leaving his wife and two kids to fend for themselves. This sets off a minor avalanche in this unit as Ebba returns repeatedly, in conversations with friends and strangers, to her husband’s abandonment. However, he has strikingly different perceptions of what happened. He claims he couldn’t have run away while wearing heavy ski boots. But we viewers are witnesses. He did bolt.
Okay. I can see where this behavior could undermine Ebba’s confidence in her spouse, especially if it is the culmination of other trust-damaging actions, such as infidelity. And there certainly is much to explore in this family’s dynamics when it appears that the vacation is an attempt to restore the household’s togetherness. Instead, at the beginning at least, these five days in a gorgeous location seem to be undermining it.
The movie would have been much more satisfying if the director had focused on the psychological subtleties that make most families fascinating fodder for stories rather than special effects. These are fine actors (the kids are especially convincing), and the setting splendid. Unfortunately, there is a sub-theme here that overwhelms what’s happening on the screen. After the shock of the “controlled” avalanche that almost smothered the restaurant, I was on edge thinking that a real avalanche—or something equally devastating—was eminent. The director encourages such a response and plays with the viewers’ fears by suggesting in multiple ways (I can’t detail them here or they’ll give away too much of the narrative) that something bad is about to occur.
It doesn’t, but I felt jerked around and wished that something climactic would happen. As it is, the story never does have the true climactic moment that it needs, and we felt a tremendous letdown after all the sparkling reviews and hype of this flawed film. Ruben Östlund, the Swedish writer/director, didn’t trust his material or his actors and leaned too heavily on special effects.