Force Majeure (2014)

Directed by Ruben Östlund


Force Majeure opens with a family portrait taken of Tomas, Ebba and their two children.  When the photographer asks Tomas and Ebba to place their heads together for the photo, their ski helmets knock into each other, slightly tarnishing this image of the perfect, happy family.  This Swedish movie takes a family that we think might have no reason to be anything but happy, and twists them until they’re almost nothing, revealing the tenuous bonds that hold them together.

Tomas, Ebba and the kids are the perfect image of a young, vibrant, healthy, happy family.  They have nothing to long for, whether financial or personal, as shown by the setting.  The entire film takes place on vacation, as they ski in the Alps, staying in a luxurious hotel, and either eating lavish meals or napping when they’re not on the slopes.  They’re wealthy, athletic, and all individually beautiful.  Together they’re like a GAP advertisement.  The only thing missing is the golden retriever.

Early in the movie, we almost always see the family together in the same shot.  There is no cross-cutting between sides of a conversation or any shot-reverse shot set ups.  Instead, they are unified in shots like these:

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Each frame is like a self-contained photograph.  When the family is together, it’s as if nothing else matters.  The entire world is within a single frame.  Later, they will become separated by cuts as a strife arises between Tomas and Ebba.

At lunch one day, there is a controlled avalanche which roars down the mountainside, and when it looks as though it might endanger them, Tomas runs off, leaving his family behind.  The snow dust settles, everyone is unscathed, and Tomas returns, either unaware of his cowardice or unwilling to admit to it.

Ebba is unsettled by Tomas’ momentary escape.  She brings up the event at dinner, in the presence of two friends, and when she jokes about Tomas running away, he denies it.  Ebba’s attempts at humor make it clear how bothered she is by his actions, and her response is to knock him down a peg, almost saving this conversation for when they’re not alone.

They try to hash out their disconnected versions of the event, and later, in the presence of two more friends, Ebba breaks down.  She recalls the moment, and how scared she was for herself and the children.  Tomas doesn’t deny her story anymore, instead he just cowers.

This conversation is uncomfortable to watch, if only because you imagine the awkwardness the other couple might feel, having been suddenly thrust into the middle of another’s marriage.  This couple, Mats and Fanny, go off to their own room that night, unable to let this go.  Fanny suggests that Mats might do the same as Tomas in that circumstance.  He is offended by this accusation, but then she points out that his ex-wife is at home with his children while he is vacationing with her, a younger woman.

Tomas eventually breaks down in front of Ebba, but by now she doesn’t want to hear it.  Once he starts crying, he can’t stop, and he makes himself a sad spectacle which his kids desperately try to stop.  Up until this point they have been somewhat indifferent towards their parents’ struggle, but now they hug their crying father, crying with him and begging their mother to help comfort him as well.

The next day they go skiing in a bit of a storm.  You can hardly see a thing, and because of the tone of this movie (mainly through the recurring musical theme, Vivaldi’s Summer Concerto), you anticipate that something horrible will go wrong.  Ebba even asks Tomas if this is safe, and you can’t help but think that he’s trying too hard to be the fearless protector, making up for his past cowardice, that he might be inadvertently leading them into danger.

When they get down the mountain, Ebba is gone.  It’s a haunting image of the three of them standing still, only faintly visible, surrounded by nothing but pure white.  Tomas calls for her, and eventually she answers, so he runs off to save her, leaving the children behind.  Now you expect that the children might be the ones left behind as Tomas will surely struggle to navigate his way back to them.

But then he returns with Ebba, and they are all smiles, a family reunited.

By this point, the movie has already had multiple possible endings.  I expected it might end with Tomas and the children, calling after Ebba who may never respond.  Then when he goes after her, I thought it might end with just the children, once again abandoned by their father.  And then I thought it might end with the family together again.

Instead, the movie follows their journey off the mountain.  As their bus driver struggles to maneuver the vehicle down a treacherous path, the bus shakes, and we expect something horrible to happen both because of Ebba’s own fear and because of the almost effortless rescue Tomas embarked upon in the previous scene.  In this movie, the quiet drama of the family is juxtaposed with long, wide open shots of the mountain side, of avalanches and of thunderstorms.  Between those long shots and the recurring Vivaldi theme, the movie puts you on the edge of your seat, expecting nothing but the worst.

But Ebba convinces the driver to let them all out, sure that he will bring them to their doom.  Where Tomas, we’ve learned, is too confident that everything will be fine, Ebba is always on guard, looking out for her family.  In this case, maybe too on guard, even though we share in her fears.

The bus makes its way down the mountain, and the departed passengers watch it go.  When it seems the bus is doing just fine, the other passengers grumble at Ebba for making them get off.  Now they’re stuck having to walk down the long and windy road.

The movie ends with Tomas leading the group down the hill.  A man offers him a cigarette which he accepts, surprising his son.  Tomas takes a few drags and seems to strut a little more than before, having been redeemed by the rescue of his wife and then by her possible overreaction towards the bus driver.

Force Majeure is told in a series of scenes that often last only a few shots.  The average shot length is 30 seconds, for a total of 230 shots.  For comparison, another movie, let’s say Christopher Nolan’s Memento, has an average shot length of 4.6 seconds.

In this movie, each scene is told from a master shot, and there is very little cutting between lines of dialogue unless there are four people in a scene, which may have been a necessity considering it’s more challenging to frame four people in a given shot unless you’re from further away.

In one particular shot, the foursome of Tomas, Ebba, Mats and Fanny sit around a dinner table, with Ebba standing over Tomas’ shoulder, her head out of frame.  She lingers there before sitting at her end of the table, which blocks out Tomas completely and makes the other two feel small in comparison to her.  The focus racks to keep the back of Ebba’s head in focus while the others become a little soft.  Like this shot, many are choreographed so that you can tell a lot about the story simply through the blocking.

It’s often more about body language than what is being said, and on multiple occasions, we are shown just the back of Ebba’s head, allowing us to assign an emotion to her based solely on posture and what we imagine we’d feel in her shoes.  I suppose that by doing this, the movie hides the characters’ feelings as they themselves will hide behind humor, too much wine and ego.  They are unwilling to admit how they feel.  Tomas can’t face the fact that he’s a coward, and Ebba doesn’t want to simply call him out, but she can’t look at him the same way.

These characters don’t want to address the central issue, so the cinematography works in a way to keep us at a distance from them, as they are from each other.  Eventually the movie uses more cross-cutting between lines of dialogue, most notably in the conversation in which Tomas breaks down in front of his wife.

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The clearest effect of this cutting, putting each character in their own frame, is that it isolates them, emphasizing the distance between them.

This is in contrast with the earlier shots that seemed to feature the entire family in every single frame, unified.  In the end we return to this style of shooting, after Tomas rescues Ebba.

The shooting style of this film, with its long takes and static shots, resembles a Gus Van Sant film such as Last Days.  The frame becomes a cage in some ways.  It’s wide, to give the characters room to roam, and it lets them wander within the frame, though rarely leaving it.  Particularly in that 2003 film, the character feels trapped.  In Force Majeure, there is a recurring shot of the front door to their hotel, shot from above and slightly askew.

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We return to this shot three times, and it’s the widest shot we get of the hotel.  From above, it looks like we are looking into a cage of some sort, the characters limited to the sides by the frame and above and below by the balcony.  The clean lines of the pillars, the carpet, the railing all restrain them.  Because we never see a wider establishing shot or even the other side of the hotel, it feels like this is all there is.  They have nowhere to go.

In Force Majeure, director Ruben Östlund creates the image of a beautiful young family, captured in a photo on a picturesque landscape, and he completely deconstructs it.  Using one moment to throw a wrench in their entire image, he shows how any of us can come undone, almost as if we all have enough skeletons in the closet to justify a separation.  All it takes is something to trigger it, like a force majeure.

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