The new Swedish film, Force Majeure, concerns itself with a fascinating concept known as fight or flight. That is to say, how do people respond to catastrophe? A question we love to debate over, but one that we never really know the answer to until we’re thrown into such a situation. We’re all guilty of sitting in the comfort of our air conditioned homes and yelling at the television when we see movie characters respond to situations in a way we don’t approve of. We call Corporal Upham a coward as he lets Private Mellish be stabbed to death in Saving Private Ryan, we argue that we could’ve formulated a better plan while the passengers of United 93 storm the cockpit. And on and on. We think we know, but do we really, truly know how we’d react when faced with certain death?
About 30 minutes into the film, a family vacationing in the French Alps is having lunch at an outdoor restaurant that overlooks the stunning Les Arcs ski resort. We hear a few loud bangs, then notice a massive pile of snow cascading down the mountain, heading directly for the restaurant. The diners turn and watch the spectacle, a few of them even record the event with their phones. As the snow gets closer, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), the patriarch of the family, says this is a controlled avalanche. There’s nothing to fear, it’s controlled. The snow gets closer. It’s controlled. Closer, faster. Right as the snow comes rushing onto the outdoor patio, Tomas’ wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) hurries to protect her young children, as Tomas runs away screaming for his life.
The dust settles, and it’s made clear that it actually was a controlled avalanche that got a little too close. No one is physically hurt but, of course, the issue is that Tomas looked out for himself, instead of worrying about his family. So the question becomes: is this a forgivable act? Do you credit Tomas’ actions to genuine shock, or do you question his commitment to his family? Now, although the avalanche is a huge event in the film, it isn’t what Force Majeure is entirely about. Essentially, the film is about the modern family dynamic – routines, marital boredom, parental infuriation. The avalanche is merely a catalyst that brings the family’s truest feelings to the surface.
The camera in Force Majeure is the ultimate observer. It rarely moves in a noticeable way, and when it does, it’s always in a controlled and seamless fashion. By shooting the film this way, Östlund and his cinematographer, Fredrik Wenzel, force the viewer to observe the action, as opposed to be a part of it. In that regard, Force Majeure has a tone that is consistent with Michael Haneke’s work. We sit. We watch. We wait. In Haneke’s films, we’re usually waiting for something awful to happen – a sudden act of violence that changes the entire scope of the story. Force Majeure is different. Because the camera is so still, we feel as though danger is lurking at every corner. Yet, for the most part, it isn’t. Just as in life, very few “extraordinary” things actually happen in Force Majeure. Most of the scenes in the film are events we’ve all experienced – arguments with loved ones, awkward dinners with acquaintances, bar confrontations that border on threatening – and most are executed in a brutally precise and darkly humorous manner.
There’s a lot going on in Force Majeure, enough to fill hours of conversation with whomever you see it with. It’s a film that provokes discussion on how you’d react to fight or flight situations, and why. It’s also a film that makes you think about similar circumstances you may have faced. A few years ago, I was standing in the pharmacy line at a Target, and I noticed a young kid (couldn’t have been older than 6), crying hysterically a few yards away. His mother began scolding and shaking him violently, demanding that he stop crying. The pharmacy line was long, and after a few moments, everyone (including the Target employees) were watching what was happening. Then, without warning, the mom slapped her child in the face as hard as she could. She wailed on the kid. Everyone was shocked. The kid fell to his knees, she continued screaming at him, he cried louder. As she raised her hand to slap him again, I rushed over and grabbed her wrist, spun her around and pinned her up against an aisle of cold medicine. She demanded that I let her go, and I told her I would, as soon as she was calm. Long story short, the police were called and I was temporarily detained in a shitty Target manager’s office before being released and told to, essentially, “Mind your own business next time.”
If I witnessed a similar situation today, I’d react the exact same way. That’s just who I am. You may think my actions were brash and impulsive and unwarranted. Or you may think the people who stood by and did nothing were cowards. Either way, fair enough. The point is, movies like Force Majeure open a dialogue to discuss these perplexing life altercations. The film forces us to come to terms with the fact that we don’t know until we know. And, hopefully, we never have to know. B+
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