What does it mean to be a man? A woman? A father? A mother? Do our actions define who we are, or are we already defined by our gender? These questions and more are thrown around in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, Sweden’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards. Through a seemingly innocent and innocuous circumstance, entire lives and motives are examined to the point of dramatic lunacy, complete with a sadsack, satirical attempt at sounding one’s barbaric yawp.
I think the whole film hinges on exaggeration of all kinds, starting with a family of four at a ski resort, enjoying a lovely time on the slopes and having a rest from their everyday lives. The ski resort manages the snow on the mountains through small, controlled avalanches, one of which is witnessed by the family one morning as they eat breakfast on the lodge deck. Well, it’s not so much “is witnessed by” – replace those words with “appears threatening to and dumps some snow on,” and you’ve got a more accurate description of the event. Seriously, we’re not talking an avalanche of Vin Diesel in xXx proportions, but it is rather scary.
No one is hurt, and people just go back to the deck to eat breakfast like nothing happened. However, after downplaying the danger of the approaching snow (taking cell phone video of it and disregarding his wife’s concerns), dad Tomas (Johannes Bah Kunke) makes like Sir Robin in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and runs away. What he didn’t do was help his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), daughter Vera (Clara Wettergren), and son Harry (Vincent Wettergren) get out of the way as well. Instead of either staying with them and covering them or dragging them out of harm’s way, he panics and flees the table without them.
With all the grace of a slow-burning candle, Ebba’s misgivings about Tomas’ actions turn into full-bore doubt and distrust. She tries to rationalize his abandonment, and they both try to forget it ever happened, but that only makes it worse, with the bad vibes trickling down from Tomas and Ebba to their children to their friends Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and Fanny (Fanni Metelius), who come to visit the family. Tomas’ worth as a man – or the stereotype of a man – is broken down to its very core. He and Mats discuss themes of what it means to be a man, at one point screaming across a deserted mountaintop in order to find one’s “manliness.” There’s even an out-of-nowhere scene where Tomas gets caught up in a raucous party, with young, barechested men drinking until they vomit, screaming unintelligibly, and basically representing the more caveman side of the notion of what it means to be a modern “man.”
Looking back on the film, it’s more funny with each remembrance. There’s a well-to-do family having a crisis about manhood? All of them are still alive, they’re still together, and they’re still functioning, but Ebba can’t stand the thought that her husband may abandon her and the kids if something like that happens again. This one little incident has pushed Tomas (and this movie) so far into exaggerated melodrama that each resulting scene gets funnier and funnier until it all culminates in a scene where we have an almost total reversal of gender and age roles.
It’s not meant to be a slapstick, Mel Brooks or Farrelly Brothers kind of comedy – it’s more like a drama film where each consecutive scene features some kind of outlandish metaphor that piles up on top of the scene that came before. To their credit, the actors play it totally straight, making each scene as serious as possible. Kunke’s Tomas follows a natural progression of the deconstruction of “manhood,” and you alternately want to hug him, sit him down and explain things to him, or punch him with each passing moment. You can’t help feeling for Kongsli’s Ebba, although you start to get more annoyed at how seriously and hysterically she’s taking every little thing, as you should. Even the title Force Majeure (literally translated, “great force”) belies what power everyone has, or what power everyone thinks they have. It’s a sneaky, thought-provoking gem of a movie, unafraid to be straightforward in its silliness.