Movie Review: Force Majeure


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I reviewed this film a few months back when it played at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. It’s now opening here commercially.

Few of us, thankfully, have ever been in a life-and-death situation where we have but a split second to make a critical choice – save or be safe. I’m reminded of the book and movie, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, where Sophie had to make a choice that no mother should ever be asked to make. Most recently, and not fiction, Corinne Rey, a designer at the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, chose to let jihadist gunmen into her offices rather than risking her and her daughter’s lives by being defiant against them. I have no doubt Ms. Rey will be questioning her choice for the rest of her life. The Swedish film, FORCE MAJEURE, looks at what happens to a family when a parent makes, in retrospect, the wrong choice.

“Sorry” seems to be the hardest word for Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), who is on an idyllic skiing vacation somewhere in the French Alps with his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their young children, Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren). Their first day in this winter paradise starts off extremely well. The sun is shining, the powder is fresh, the kids are smiling, and Ebba is happy to have Tomas away from his job for five days of family R&R. It’s all a bit too perfect though. Even as the ski resort’s photographer poses the family for those portrait shots that will make all their friends ooze with jealousy when they see them, or as they crash out together on their hotel bed for an apres ski afternoon nap, we just know that something is going to happen because life is never that perfect.

Day Two continues where Day One left off with another morning on the slopes but it all goes quickly downhill after that. While having lunch at one of the resort’s impossibly picturesque outdoor restaurants, a controlled avalanche on one of the nearby mountains goes out of control and it seems that the cascading snow is heading straight for the restaurant. As the snow gets closer, everyone panics and, in that split second, Tomas reaches for his iPhone and bolts the scene, leaving his family to their fate. As it turned out, the snow wasn’t as close as it appeared and, once the snow dust settles, everyone is safe. Just as quickly as the chaos arose, life returns to normal and all the guests – including Tomas – return to their tables to finish their meals. But life will never be the same for this family whose father chose self-preservation over the welfare of his children.

Later, as Ebba tries to make sense of what happened at the restaurant, Tomas has a different recollection of events. To be fair to Ebba, Tomas doesn’t say what his recollection is; he just says that Ebba’s version is inaccurate. For the sake of family unity, though, they agree to disagree and put it behind them, but Ebba, who saw her children abandoned in a time of crisis, finds that she cannot. Ebba is forced to re-evaluate her relationship to the man she believed would always be her family’s rock and shield. Unlike the trails that are meticulously groomed every night for new ski runs in the morning, Tomas is unable to find redemption with his family because he cannot bring himself to offering them a simple apology and an acknowledgement (especially to himself) that he’s only human. He is trapped in society’s expectation that the man/husband/father must be strong and in control, though he eventually realises that cannot live that way any longer and he melts down in front of Ebba and the hotel’s janitor in a most unmanly way.

FORCE MAJEURE is a sometimes funny, sometimes painful exploration of gender expectations. The film could have ended right after Tomas’ admission of weakness, leaving us to speculate on the viability of his and Ebba’s marriage but two subsequent events jar our preconceptions again and again. I guarantee that after you see this film you will ask both yourself and your significant other, “What would you do?”

The film was an audience favourite at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and went on to win the Jury Prize in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section. It was also Sweden’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® this year and deservedly so. Go see this film! It’s well worth your time.

Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 28:50.)

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