Force Majeure is an uncomfortable delight

Swedish director Ruben Östlund looks at gender roles and the frailty of instinct in this bleak comedy.

The moment of truth
Horror movies are predicated mostly on instinct. Instinct is what determines whether a character will decide they have better chances if they split up; instinct determines whether attempting to deal the fatal blow will prove enough to kill whatever beast is chasing you. Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure does not fall under even the broadest genre definition of a horror movie; if anything it’s a grim, pitch-black comedy about the horror that can ensue when you follow your instinct. It’s a living nightmare for people who fear saying the wrong thing at the wrong time more than they fear being murdered by an axe-swinging madman.

forcemajeure04Tomas and Ebba (Johannes Kunke and Lisa Loven Kongsli) are well-to-do young Swedish professionals with two adorable moppetish children (Clara and Vincent Wettergren). They’ve decided to take a ski vacation in a luxurious resort in France, enjoying the slopes during the day and the fine dining at night. They’re loving, patient parents — until a supposedly controlled avalanche gives them a scare one morning while they’re dining on the terrasse of the hotel. Seeing the avalanche grow nearer and nearer, Tomas grabs his phone and bolts, leaving Ebba alone to take the children to safety or, more likely, die under a metric shit-ton of snow. The avalanche proves to be a false alarm, but its effect on the lives of Tomas and Ebba is anything but, especially when Tomas’s best friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju, Games of Thrones’ Tormund Giantsbane) joins the vacation with his 20-year-old squeeze Fanni (Fanni Metelius).

Östlund sets the majority of the movie in the emotional grey area that follows a fight, when both parties have agreed that they don’t want to have that fight but still haven’t actually solved anything. Tomas immediately regrets having acted instinctually, but his regret isn’t enough to convince Ebba that he might be liable to abandon them at any moment. When Mats shows up and they get to talking about it, Tomas starts to believe that he may actually have no control over whether or not he actually wants to protect his family. It’s alternately harrowing in a ‘why-are-Mommy-and-Daddy-fighting?’ way (quite literally, in the children’s case) and hilarious. Scenes that start out with benign conflict grow increasingly uncomfortable, then past discomfort into bleak hilarity, like a Michael Haneke-directed episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Östlund has drawn a lot of comparison to Haneke for this film and it’s true that they both share a rigorous style that favours long takes, precise framing and minimal scoring. Östlund, however, never goes as far as Haneke in his contempt / skewering of his characters. Östlund has no pity for the characters and their actions, but he shows them a certain mercy nevertheless. They’re not grotesque caricatures, but they find themselves in a situation befitting grotesquerie. Force Majeure is essentially a film about gender roles and the way they manage to cloud even our best intentions. Ebba is horrified at the idea that she’s suddenly seeing her husband as a ‘guys do this because they’re guys’ type of dude, but she also can’t help it. Human nature supercedes logic. If that throws you in a spiral of depression and self-doubt, you may want to avoid Force Majeure. For everyone else, though, it’s an uncomfortable delight.
Force Majeure (with English subtitles) opens at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) and (with French subtitles) at Cinéma Excentris (3536 St-Laurent) today, Friday, Jan. 16

Watch the trailer here: