Canon Entry - Force Majeure (2014)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
While researching Force Majeure, I saw that no one had mentioned the sound design as an important feature of this film. It’s not surprising since, for long stretches, you could watch this film on mute and just admire the breathtaking photography of the pristine Alps, largely thanks to Ostlund’s experience shooting skiing films. But on rewatching this film, I was struck by just how striking the use of sound was. Our first impression of the film is not an image, but the sound of a man encouraging the main family to take a family photo. In moments of contemplation, the ambient noise of modern life is hard to avoid, whether it is the janitor vacuuming or the buzz of the electric toothbrushes the family favors. Ostlund even includes a prominent non-diegetic use of Vivaldi’s “Summer,” played by a young prodigy on accordion, as a recurring auditory motif.
In fact, the main image and catalyst of the film is not so much an image as it is suggestion through sound. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kunhke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two young children are enjoying a breakfast on the patio when they witness what Tomas asserts is a “controlled avalanche.” (We have been set up for this scene with images of cannons doing precisely what Tomas is talking about.) They observe with an ever-growing sense of unease even as Tomas tries to reassure his wife and children that they have nothing to fear. It is not until a large snow cloud rushes over the patio that everyone panics and rushes off the patio, with Tomas leaving his family behind. The screen is almost a pure white during this moment, so all we hear are the characters’ frantic cries.
It is Tomas’ act of instinct that will precipitate a sea change in the relationship between the couple and for the people around them. It takes us a while to really understand the impact of this seemingly minor event. Towards the beginning of the film, we are not encouraged to connect to the characters in a deep, meaningful way. Ostlund favors long shots with his characters being subsumed by their surrounding whether it is the coldly majestic mountains, or the sleek, sterile interiors of the ski resort that clearly only the affluent can afford. When we get seemingly personal moments, Ostlund insists on the artifice of these moments. The family photograph from the first scene is awkward and posed as anyone who has taken a family photograph would know. When they are all sleeping in the same bed, they wear tastefully color coordinated nightwear. Even the developed photos look like glamour shots; the children look like child models, and the handsome couple could easily grace a brochure for this ski resort.
Eventually, however, this perfect facade starts to fall away piece by ugly piece, and the film becomes a full-on relationship drama as the characters start tearing each other apart. If this sounds like melodrama, you would be dead wrong. Ostlund refuses to make his characters sympathetic, or, in fact, manipulate our emotions at all. He would rather have us contemplate their foibles as they struggle for their humanity in the modern world that they have trapped themselves in. Tomas gets the brunt of Ostlund’s criticism. As an attempt to reassert his dominance after Ebba has thoroughly emasculated him, he participates in an intensely straight, to the point of homoerotic, bacchanal as a desperate attempt to regain his masculinity.
Yet Ebba does not escape Ostlund’s sharp eye either. Her attempt to admonish her friend’s dalliance with young males comes off as judgmental and unloving. Her insistence on making her husband feel the weight of his slight against her backfires in a awkwardly hilarious scene as Tomas ugly cries his way out of the situation. Even his children join in his misery, and they urge Ebba to join in comforting their father even though it’s the last thing that she wants to do.
For that scene, Ostlund apparently showed Bah Kuhnke a video of the much memed “Best Cry Ever” and told him to imitate it.
Even without knowing this, this scene has so many layers that could inspire so many different inspirations. It could be a genuine cry of shame from the wounded former alpha. The falsity of the cry could be because, as the formerly dominant male, he had never needed to be truly vulnerable and does not know how. The total opposite could be possible too, and this could be a calculated ploy on Tomas’ part to get back at Ebba and get the children on his side. Tomas’ son did clearly tell his father that he did not want to see them divorce, and perhaps Tomas used that to his knowledge. Perhaps it is a mixture of both. Whatever this scene is, it is a truly brilliant piece of acting, staging and direction.
Even as the film makes its way towards reconciliation, we can never be sure with Ostlund if he is meant to be sincere. One of the climaxes of the film was also inspired by a viral video that would resonate with an Internet-savvy viewer.
I do not see this emotional opacity as a weakness of his work, although it may be the reason why many people will not connect to this film. However, it would arguably be more insincere if Ostlund told us precisely how to feel. Conventional means of dictating emotion are avoided and even directly commented upon, such as the use of the aforementioned non-diegetic accordion rendition of Vivaldi’s “Summer.”
Though the film has a bleak outlook on humanity, it manages to be illuminating instead of didactic. In this respect, Ostlund distinguishes himself from other “provocateur” filmmakers (he is sometimes compared to Michael Haneke). Though he is definitely dedicated to his ultimately cynical vision of humanity, Ostlund manages to not condescend to his audience, which Haneke has very definitely been guilty of in some of his films. Force Majeure invites many different interpretations, but its real merit is that Ostlund trusts in our intelligence to wrestle with this film and to see the humor in the damage that our overly civilized and modern society has done to us.