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A marital mess snowballing out of control

Monday, May 31, 2021

Some films make great date movies you can enjoy with your significant other. Force Majeure is not one of them. That’s because what you see unfold between the husband and wife in this story could easily be applied as a “what-if” scenario to your relationship, causing your partner to possibly question what you would do in the same situation. Nevertheless, Force Majeure, directed and written by Ruben Östlund, makes for great debate and a terrific picture to discuss in a group context, as our CineVerse club did last week (click here for a recording of our group chat). Here’s a summary of our talking points:

What struck you as interesting, unique, or memorable about this movie?

  • Tonally, it intricately shifts between heavy and ponderous drama and biting satire, forcing us to often laugh at and not necessarily empathize or connect with these characters.
    • Slant critic Abhimanyu Das wrote: “Despite the weight of the philosophical questions being pondered, Östlund and his cast also display the ability to mine comedy from the unlikeliest corners. Force Majeure is as sustained an exercise in cringe-inducing humor as anything produced by Larry David or Ricky Gervais, and arguably more controlled, turning on a dime between exquisitely calibrated laughs and unsettling emotional violence. Heated exchanges are abruptly rendered hilarious by cutting away to a reaction shot or by a change in the participants’ emotional register. A stony-faced janitor appears at the most inopportune moments to witness, gargoyle-like, some of the characters’ more hysterical outbursts.”
  • The filmmakers opt for interesting approaches. For example, they often show the characters and their arguments either from a far distance or intimately close; the avalanche scene is a continuous 4 ½ minute take without edits and framed from a distance so that it doesn’t draw attention to the father’s actions; the camera doesn’t look away from characters during tense or uncomfortable scenes, forcing us to linger on cringeworthy moments. The filmmakers don’t seem to be picking a side here; instead, we are allowed to draw our own conclusions about these characters and the controversy.
  • Also, the story is segmented into acts separated by title cards that indicate the day of the trip, stirring Vivaldi strings are heard sporadically throughout the film, and interspersed exterior shots of the stark wilderness – all adding portentousness and creating a sense of foreboding. These techniques create an ironic effect when you consider that no one dies or is even physically hurt and this relationship challenge is presumably salvageable.
  • The director said that this movie was inspired by an incident in which a Swedish couple – his friends – vacationed in Latin America; the duo was having dinner when gunmen burst into the restaurant and began firing. Instead of protecting his spouse, the husband ducked for cover. The shocked wife couldn’t let this failure go, proceeding to retell the tale to her friends time and again. Östlund later researched couples who survived disasters like shipwrecks and tsunamis and discovered that a high proportion of these partners end up divorcing.

Themes crafted into Force Majeure

  • Gender role reversals and expectations. Thomas seemingly acts contrary to expected masculine and macho ways, and Ebba demonstrates that she doesn’t always play the role of the protective matriarch or polite female stranger. Likewise, her friend Charlotte proves to be a promiscuous player like many would expect a man would be.
  • What does it mean to be a man and to exhibit masculinity in the modern age? Thomas and Mats are continually emasculated and forced to question their manhood, sex appeal, and motivations. This film explores the gap between what men project and assume about themselves and their true natures. The movie suggests that most men are inherently flawed because they try too hard to live up to an idealized standard and won’t be honest with themselves and others about their faults.
  • Relationships can be a catastrophe waiting to happen. Much like an avalanche that can snowball out of control, a flawed marriage or relationship built on shaky grounds can crumble suddenly or at least prove seriously vulnerable.
  • “The clash between our attempts to control nature, whether of landscapes or feelings, and the inevitability with which the world, and our own fallibility, confound and leave a stranded,” according to Jonathan Romney, film critic with The Guardian.
  • The picture also challenges the audience by asking: What would you do in this situation? What are you capable of in a crisis? Would you protect your loved ones during a catastrophe? Would you question and doubt your partner if they didn’t live up to your expectations? Would you deny any culpability? What should happen when one partner spectacularly flops in his or her obligations to his family and children and subsequently can’t acknowledge his or her failure?

Similar works

  • The Shining
  • The Loneliest Planet
  • Films by Michael Haneke, including Hidden, Funny Games, White Ribbon, and Amour
  • Films by Ingmar Bergman, including Scenes From a Marriage, that also suggest the “silence of God”
  • Downhill
  • Perfect Strangers
  • The Vanishing

Other films by Ruben Ostlund

  • Involuntary
  • Play
  • The Square
  • Triangle of Sadness

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