Force Majeure [Turist]

Ruben Östlund
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Sweden, France, Norway, Denmark, Italy
Screening Date:
  • 10 Jan 2023
  • Categories:
    Comedy, Drama

    A Swedish couple are on a skiing holiday with their children, but the aftermath of an avalanche which didn't occur rocks their marriage and leads to uncomfortable conversations.

    Film Notes

    Cannes 2014: Force Majeure, review: 'brutal satire'

    This ice-cold Swedish drama about a family torn apart by cowardice is like Bergman with a wicked streak.

    Screenplay seminars like to prattle on about the “inciting event” that drives a story forward, or pushes a film’s characters into the main predicament that defines them. In Force Majeure, the latest brilliantly testing, laugh-as-you-wince experience from Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund, this event is a moment that changes everything, even though no one dies, or suffers physically in any way. The critical incident occurs after an unsettlingly banal reel or so, with an arrangement of the stormy Summer finale from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons keeping us in jittery anticipation.

    There’s normally so much happening in an Östlund scene, an Östlund *frame*, that anyone familiar with his work (2004’s Involuntary, 2011’s Play) may find the set-up suspenseful in its very lack of foregrounded drama. His film unfolds over a five-day skiing holiday in the French Alps, a pricey-looking getaway for a well-heeled couple, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children.

    These aren’t the first Östlund characters whose bubble of bourgeois privilege looks like an unusually dangerous cocoon to inhabit. It’s bound to be popped, sooner or later. But it’s popped from within, not without. They sit lunching on a veranda, and start to notice an avalanche – controlled, Tomas reassures them – rolling down from the mountainside.

    It snowballs and approaches. Consternation grows. Other guests flee. In their moment of blind panic, Ebba’s instinct is to reach for her children. But Tomas grabs his mobile phone, snatches up his gloves, and legs it.

    The white-out, after this superbly achieved sequence, dissipates. It was actually just smoke, thrown up from the avalanche below. Tomas returns to his shaken family, and for some hours, they carry on in a slight daze, as if nothing untoward has happened.

    When Ebba airs her bewildered feelings, the scene is pure Östlund: she does it over dinner, with another couple not only facing, but trying, feebly, to pretend the lapse isn’t as bad as it sounds. Tomas does the same, claiming that his recollection of the crisis is entirely different from Ebba’s. But the film isn’t offering him the Rashomon-like crutch of conflicting subjectivities. We know what we saw. The truth of his unlovely abandonment begins to eat away at their marriage like a festering worm.

    Östlund has become an almost brutal satirist of his countrymen’s foibles, presumptions and hidden prejudices, like Bergman with a more wicked streak. He drops his films like slow-ticking stinkbombs into the comfy art-houses of Stockholm. This one is playing in the second-tier Cannes strand Un Certain Regard, but it’s competition-worthy, and has secret reserves of compassion once you’ve peeped out from between your fingers.

    In Tomas, Östlund diagnoses traits of stunted male egotism and whopping immaturity, matched with an almost equally immature desire to look like a hero when no personal danger is incurred. Ebba, meanwhile, is far from blame-free, especially in agreeing to present a “united front” to their children, whose dismay at what their dad did (or didn't do) looks as if it even eclipses hers.

    The film’s a series of post-mortems after a death that never even occurred, unless it’s the death of trust and solidarity in a relationship mainly cushioned by wealth. Each new wrinkle in the scenario makes you squirm and recognise some rarely-broached truth.

    Mightily clever in its rather theatrical structure, but bracingly cinematic in its formal approach, the movie has a bold, ambiguous final act where the family are placed twice again in potentially dire straits. Though Östlund, a glacial and ever-more-confident stylist, never pushes his own metaphors too far, we’ll add one: this family are skiing down a black run into a blacker chasm.

    Tim Robey, The Telegraph, 23rd May 2014.

    “Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!” They sound like fireworks launched off season, an unexpected, startling series of deep claps that go off regularly above the slopes of an Alpine ski resort. The noise triggers a controlled avalanche, loosening up enough fresh powder to supply tourists with a sporting terrain as meticulously manicured as a golf course. That phrase, “controlled avalanche,” also supplies Ruben Östlund, writer-director of the incisive, diamond-cut marital drama Force Majeure, with both an inciting incident and an oxymoron that hovers over the entire film. For the bourgeois families that visit this resort, the pristine slopes are part of the all-inclusive vacation package, as predictably sculpted and packaged as the mints the cleaning staff might leave on the pillows. But nature—and human nature—can’t be managed so easily, and when danger and chaos threaten the artificial order of things, it can be quietly, subtly, and perhaps irreversibly catastrophic. 

    With its stark, exacting compositional style and its scathing insights into the elite class, Force Majeure draws an obvious comparison to Michael Haneke, who also likes to build movies around (or toward) a single, gasp-inducing incident. But Östlund is a stop or two less severe in assessing the fractures that develop within a picture-perfect Scandinavian family. Östlund even begins with that picture, of father Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children (Clara and Vincent Wettergren, real-life brother and sister) posing in their ski gear for a resort photographer. There’s nothing wrong with them in that shot, and why should there be? They’re gorgeous, they have money, the kids are smart and enthusiastic, and they’re on vacation, enjoying the privileges of being among the lucky few. And there’s no evidence, either, that Östlund holds them in contempt, which is another mark of distinction from Haneke. 

    It isn’t worth getting into exactly what happens in the big scene—it’s best experienced completely cold. But for those who don’t want to bail down to the next paragraph: It takes place on a crowded restaurant patio, where Tomas, Ebba, and the kids are having a scenic lunch. “BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!” A controlled avalanche is triggered on the adjacent mountainside, and everyone turns to gawp and take pictures. But the cloud of snow keeps expanding and expanding as it reaches the deck, and suddenly the tourists are screaming and running for cover. It turns out to be a false panic—at worst, the entrées may have to get sent back to the kitchen—but Tomas’ instincts in this split-second moment are called into question. And what starts as a little teasing and passive-aggression becomes a full-on marital crisis. 

    For the sake of contrast—and as a sounding board from the outside—Östlund adds another couple (Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius) into the mix, and even they face a mini-crisis in mulling over what’s happened to Tomas and Ebba. If the avalanche had never happened, it’s likely that Tomas and Ebba would have continued being the model couple at the head of a model family, and they would have never known certain fundamental things about each other. Questions linger about Tomas’ manhood (and Ebba’s expectations of same), about the balance of their partnership, and about whether a person’s unconscious reaction to a threat is a fair barometer of courage and devotion.

    Östland writes the conflict between husband and wife beautifully, like a scab that gets picked at until it bleeds, and he does things cinematically, too, to suggest the growing distance between them—an already-cool visual palette broadens like a yawning chasm. He’s also insightful about the cues that children keenly understand, and the ways in which they regress and retreat when they know their parents are at odds. But as harsh as Force Majeure gets at its lowest moments, Östland contrives a pair of revelatory scenes in the third act that lay waste to any preconceptions about where the film appears to be headed. The conversation between Tomas and Ebba is fraught, but it’s far from over. 

    Scott Tobias, The Disolve, October 21 2014.

    What you thought about Force Majeure [Turist]

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    8 (33%) 9 (38%) 4 (17%) 2 (8%) 1 (4%)
    Total Number of Responses: 24
    Film Score (0-5): 3.88

    Collated Response Comments

    94 members and guests attended the screening of Force Majeure.

    We received a total number of responses of 24 giving a film score of 3.88. This is a response rate of 26%, a much lower than average response rate. Reflecting on the comments received it is clear that you were split on your judgement of the film.

    The low response rate is disappointing and could indicate that more of you had either a low opinion of it, felt uncomfortable, or were still undecided about it when you left.

    By contrast, Licorice Pizza which had an audience of 91, scored 3.57. This is the lowest score of the season so far, but it was delivered from 42 responses, a 42% response rate. So many more of you were prepared to express an opinion.

    It really helps when we know what you feel about a film because it informs the committee in determining the type of films to choose for each season.

    Your collated comments are shown below.

    “My first film as a Godalming Film Club member - thought it was utterly brilliant. A fascinatingly brutal look at male identity and the dynamics of family.  Great use of sound and music too!”

    "As a keen skier one of the the most striking things about the film is its depiction of skiing. The snow is blankly flat with the hideous infrastructure emphasised, the inhuman automation clanking and grinding threateningly. It suggests they are feeding themselves into a particularly well scrubbed abattoir. Until Mats and Tomas ditch the machinery and walk into the pristine off piste where Tomas finds some kind of release that is. Is it intentionally tonally uneven? To create a discomfort and tension as you are never sure whether you're supposed to be laughing or crying perhaps? It's certainly an uncomfortable watch, it reminded me of a particularly crisp, funereal, upper middle class, Scandi version of 'Abigail's party' in many ways. Both end sequences are odd (lost in snow and the coach journey), presumably Tomas accepting a cigarette and being honest about it suggests he has accepted his failings. Whether Ebba is convinced remains unclear. Shot in Les Arcs apparently, where I'll be skiing in a month. Happy trails..."

    “A very disturbing film, very well made, acting very good - perhaps not outstanding, except for the children. Kept posing questions I didn't want to address - worrying. Vividly evoked the atmosphere of a ski resort, with the sounds of the lift machinery and the white-outs.  Some oddities - being allowed to go down that final run in atrocious conditions - really?  and the bus bit at the end felt tacked on.    Overall, very good and challenging. The final scene (walking down the road) reminded me of the end of Cosi fan Tutte: following a betrayal, no-one really knows where they now are in their relationship, or whether they can really trust their partner again; neither the main couple nor Mats and his girlfriend.  My wife commented: just as well they only booked for 5 days, not a fortnight!”

    “The contrast between the opening sequences showing a "perfect happy family" on holiday and the aftermath of the avalanche couldn't be more striking. The tension was incredible”.

    “First the very good, breath-taking cinematography; the casting, especially of the male actor, I despised him; with credit also to the lead female actor, totally conveyed her dismay, confusion and hurt. I would have rated this excellent except for some scenes which I couldn't comprehend. Why go out into a hotel lobby when you have internal doors between sleeping and living space? The rave scene! Not a film I would recommend to anyone going on their first skiing trip. Nor would I fancy working the shifts at that hotel”.

    “Introspective, self-indulgent Scandinavian crap. A seven-year member, this is the film I enjoyed least of all the Society films I have seen. However, presumably some people liked it, and if the Society only screened films to my taste, it would not be casting its net widely enough. So, I have no problem with its being on the Society's programme”.

    “Dull. I'm glad I never tried skiing”.

    “A brilliant dissection of a dysfunctional but not unusual relationship: the unwillingness of one partner to admit they were wrong and the relentless pursuit by the other partner to prove they're right”.

    “Very good photography of snow scenes and dramatic music but although the script had a good premise to start from it became too fanciful/ unreal and dragged on without really delivering on the potential interpersonal tensions and failed to deliver a decent coherent story”.

    “Fabulous filming. Brilliant acting. Thought provoking”.

    “Second time to watch. Got a lot more out of it this time”.

    “Really enjoyed this. Very thought provoking and scary!”

    “What an eventful holiday! It has put me off skiing. Quite tense at times. He redeemed himself on the slope when she was ‘lost’.”

    “Glad the holiday was not two weeks”.

    “A very uncomfortable watch. I didn’t enjoy it”.

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