Published Sep 09, 2014Throughout his career, Swedish director Ruben Östlund has tackled stories that deconstruct social norms. He's primarily focused on the nature of peer pressure and bullying — assessing what motivates and determines such behaviour. But, of late, he's gravitated more towards analyzing the nature of perspective and how unplanned action manifests and defines a person, further scrutinizing the nature of instinct in relation to social expectation.
With Force Majeure, Östlund has crafted his shrewdest observation to date. Initially, it details the anodyne experiences of a traditional nuclear Swedish family vacationing in the French Alps. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) present as the perfect parents to two mostly happy kids — save the occasional youthful outburst — posing for family photos and smiling through their repetitive daily routine.
Smartly, even during these early moments in which a familial dynamic is outlined, there's a coldness and a formality to the mise-en-scene that's exacerbated by the serene, snowy landscape. Everything is almost too perfect, the framing too formal and the situation too calm. This is why an unexpected controlled avalanche during a quiet family lunch on a rooftop patio creates such chaos. The family, certain that the descending snow is going to bury them, panic; Ebba jumps to shelter the kids while Tomas flees the scene solo.
From here, Force Majeure gets a bit sticky; the previously established ease between the couple promptly breaks down. Though the situation remains undiscussed, the askew body language and obvious discomfort of the children — sensing tension even before the shouting starts — positions Tomas sheepishly in relation to Ebba's fear and rage. What's particularly interesting is that the couple seems keen to simply ignore the event until social expectation strikes during a dinner with friends, when they're asked to tell the story of what it was like to be in the middle of an avalanche fog. It's the prospect of looking bad in front of others that inspires them to confront the disconnect in perspective and Ebba's fears of abandonment.
Beyond the occasionally glib and consistently emotional discussions about what motivates people in crisis situations — maternal instinct and male survivalist instinct are cited most frequently — the consistency is basic annihilation anxiety. Tomas and Ebba, along with another couple that use this situation as a starting point for a discussion about how they might react, struggle to interpret what it means that social niceties and good intentions can break down and dissipate in the face of a crisis. What does it mean about humanity overall? Is it all for show?
Amidst these discussions, Östlund presents a handful of other situations that challenge social etiquette. Ebba chastises a friend for having an extra-marital fling, unable to comprehend the lack of traditionalist boundaries in an open relationship, while Tomas and a friend of his have a mixed response to a social faux pas wherein a fellow tourist offers a flirtation and then retracts it, saying that it was a misunderstanding.
The pervading sense of unease stemming from these discussions and these situations that fall outside of the spectrum of false politeness cleverly questions our collective perception of the veneer that holds society together. Östlund's rigid direction, utilizing protracted, still takes with a delineated frame, puts his subjects on display like zoo animals, giving us some distance from which to watch them behave very much like people do despite being viewed under a questioning, altogether judgemental gaze.
If there is a fault to this gorgeously shot, highly analytical work, it's that everything fits together too concisely by the third act, when Ebba is confronted with a similar situation. This need to put Tomas and Ebba on a level playing field, despite aiding an assertion that we're all victim to instinct, is a tad too convenient for a narrative that is otherwise challenging. It certainly doesn't derail what preceded it, but it does hinder the overall effect of an otherwise remarkable achievement.
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