Ask any self-respecting group of Seinfeld fans what the show’s antiheroic everyman George Costanza’s worst act in the history of the show was, and it won’t be long before someone mentions “The Fire”, the episode where a fire breaks out at a kids’ birthday party and George pushes his way through kids and even pensioners to ensure his own safety. It’s heinous, despicable, and morally inexcusable… And funny, because it speaks to our own basest self-preservation instincts and the way we cannot govern how we act in a crisis.
Force Majeure is basically a remake of that episode of Seinfeld, if it had been written by Michael Haneke. Director Ruben Ostland has crafted a wonderful two hour exercise in virtue ethics based around the conceit that, upon seeing an avalanche whilst eating lunch with his family, patriarch Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) panics, grabs his phone, and runs away, as opposed to sticking around to ensure his family’s safety. After the initial shock has settled, his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) begins to take stock, and starts to think, “is this the man I married?”, “is this the man I chose to protect me?”.
Fittingly, the film has the structure of an avalanche, starting as a slow rumble, not enough to comment on, and building in momentum until before you know it, it’s too big to ignore and too late to run away. The film cleverly dissects Tomas’s psyche in the wake of the incident, and the effect it has on his family. By extension, the film shrewdly asks questions about what it is we expect of our protectors in life, what that role entails, and the way in which society fosters those roles upon us.
This is exemplified in what was, for me, as opposed to the avalanche itself, the film’s centrepiece, a conversation between Tomas and Ebba, their friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his much younger girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius). In it, all the parties air their various grievances, and it becomes clear to everyone in the room (and the audience) that Ebba is not simply going to let this slide. She delivers, masterfully, a monologue where she describes her version of events, while Tomas stares blankly, taking the words like silent punches. Mats and Fanni look on, but eventually Mats sides with Tomas, and Fanni with Ebba. The conversation reveals itself to be less about the incident itself, but about gender roles. Mats tries to justify Tomas’s actions by saying that he simply escaped so that he could later return and rescue his family safely; nobody buys it.
Ostlund’s direction draws out these lines cannily. He has a habit of exaggerating the frame so that what is presented to us, and what we are hearing, are often at odds with each other. In the aforementioned sequence, Fanni is talking about herself, but all we can see is a closeup of Ebba’s face; this is held for a couple of minutes before Ebba begins her monologue, and it leaves the viewer uncertain where Fanni is in relation to everyone else. A lot of scenes occur in this manner, and it’s effective, because it forces the viewer into the same state of disassociative confusion that the family has found themselves in.
If it all sounds very clever-clever and heavy-leaden, it isn’t. Hidden amongst the flashes of portentousness (cannons firing to control the avalanches punctuate sequences like individually aimed gunshots, or the 1812 Overture), the film has an almost gleefully sadistic, satirical bent, protecting itself against favourable MRA readings by painting Tomas out to be, in some scenes, utterly pathetic. A sequence where he finds himself uncontrollably bawling outside his hotel room, claiming to be held captive by his own instincts, is uncomfortably pitched but hilarious for Ostlund’s refusal to look away, and Kuhnke’s commitment to character.
Ostlund, in an interview, talks about how typically in films, “man as hero” is the most common trope, and how that doesn’t match up to the statistical reality of how men act in an emergency, and how they’re usually much more selfish. This is clearly of great interest him, but he cleverly refuses to take one side or another, and acknowledges both realities. Men, yes, are put under a great amount of pressure to provide for those around them, but men also have a tendency to play the victim and expect a great deal, perhaps too much, in return.
This is a dense, knotty, shrewd and refreshingly doe-eyed film, hilarious and a little scary in places, and it doesn’t back away from the questions it’s asking. As such, it’s a moral thriller of the highest calibre, that invites readings on a number of levels, and it engages the viewer on a philosophical level as well as a real-world, practical level. Not many films can do either of those things, let alone be funny on top. It’s something of a marvel.