Fools fooling with nature
Force Majeure, drama, rated R, in Swedish, French, and English with subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles Residents of the tinderbox-like Southwest, with its drought-ridden summers and constant threat of forest fires, are no strangers to that dare to Mother Nature, the controlled burn. These man- made conflagrations, like vaccinations with a live disease culture, are designed as a preemptive strike on nature to protect against a full-blown natural disaster. Most of the time they work as intended. But, as those whose memories here reach back to the devastating Cerro Grande fire of 2000 can attest, “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/gang aft agley” — to quote the famous line from Robert Burns.
They practice a similar taunting of Mother Nature in the Alps. As writer-director Ruben Östlund’s movie opens with breathtaking vistas of snow-laden mountains, we see and hear explosions in the snow — flashes of light accompanied by ominous claps of percussion bursting from the majestic slopes. These explosions, we will come to find out, are detonated to trigger controlled avalanches, to relieve the burden of accumulated snow and minimize the risk of natural slides that might cause serious harm.
But danger is the furthest thing from the minds of the well- heeled vacationers at this luxurious French ski resort. Among them are Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), a prosperous Swedish businessman, his pretty, dark-haired wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two young children, Vera and Harry (played by siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren), who have come to the Alps for a week’s ski vacation. As Östlund shepherds us along with titles announcing their progress through the holiday (“Ski Day One,” “Ski Day Two”), they rise each morning, breakfast, and hit the slopes. They have their picture taken en famille by the resort photographer, and then slalom down through the magnificent scenery. At the end of the day, they ride a moving sidewalk through a great, womblike tube back into the hotel.
For a while, nothing happens. There is something almost ominously peaceful about the routine. The ski-lift rides pass in silence. The Swedish family is beautiful, they ski beautifully, they relax beautifully after hours, sipping cocktails and meeting fellow vacationers in the beautiful lodge of the resort.
And outside, on the slopes of the towering mountain, come the explosions, the bursts of light and thunder, and the massive tumbling walls of snow racing down through the darkness. And the evening and the morning are the second day.
As Tomas and his family relax for lunch on the sun-warmed outside deck of the resort’s restaurant, they hear a distant boom, and far above, a wide swath of snow begins to move. “Don’t worry,” Tomas assures his kids, “it’s a controlled avalanche.” Vacationers grab their phones and start taking pictures. But the avalanche picks up speed and seems to be heading directly toward them. People begin to scream and panic. As the wall of snow bears down on them, Tomas grabs his gloves and phone and bolts. Meanwhile, Ebba dives for the floor with the children, and the deck becomes enveloped in a blinding fog of white.
Moments later, the crisis has passed. The avalanche did not reach the deck, the white shroud was only the powdery mist it kicked up. Everyone is safe. Tomas returns, trying to act as if nothing has happened.
But something has. In his split-second, gut reaction to mortal terror, he has abandoned his family, abandoned his role of male protector, and thought only of himself. It can’t be undone. And it won’t go away.
As defined in the Collins English Dictionary, the law term force majeure alludes to an “irresistible force or compulsion such as will excuse a party from performing his or her part of a contract.” That’s the nub of this movie.
The genie of male cowardice is out of the bottle, and it can’t be put back in or explained away. The kids grow sullen. Ebba, especially with a couple of drinks in her, can’t let it go. She recounts the tale to friends and strangers alike. Tomas claims to remember the events differently, but he knows — and we know — he’s lying. It’s not something that can be apologized for, like infidelity. It’s not like Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts in The Impossible, in which a family is blasted apart by a tsunami. Here, the force of nature that tears them apart is a force of human nature that reveals essential weakness and shame.
There are four more days to go, and Force Majeure takes us through them. Another couple arrives, a redbearded old friend of Tomas’ with his young mistress in tow. He tries to put the best spin he can on the story, but only winds up later in bed getting put down by his little blonde.
This isn’t a uniformly solid movie. There are scenes that don’t hold up, that don’t seem to make much sense. Ebba has their friends watch a video of the event on Tomas’ iPhone — what kind of footage could there possibly be? Tomas locks himself out of his room, and it doesn’t occur to him to go down to the desk and ask for a replacement key card — is the point that he’s worthless in any kind of a crisis? There’s an odd janitor who looks menacing. There’s an awkward stab at redemption toward the end, and a final scene of puzzling ambiguity.
But the key event, the instinctive ignoble act of self-preservation, is all it takes to send you out of the theater with something uncomfortable to think and talk about in the days ahead.
— Jonathan Richards