Swedish film “Force Majeure”, which is probably the funniest and smartest film I have seen during this month, handles its intimate but edgy drama with wits and elegance to savor and admire. Like many good stories, it presents fully established characters at the beginning, and then it simply observes what they are going to do next once they are put into a circumstance to deal with. As enjoying its many bitingly humorous or amusingly insightful moments generated from their serious personal matter, we come to ask ourselves: how will we respond if we are in such a circumstance like that?
At the beginning, it just looks like your average family vacation at some nice ski resort in the French Alps. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) is glad to have a break from his busy business work, and his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two kids are looking forward to having more fun together with him as happily spending the first day of their vacation in this wonderful winter vacation spot. Surrounded by snowy peaks and many ski slopes, the resort looks fantastic outside while providing a warm, comfortable modern interior environment for its guests, and I must confess that I felt the urge to visit this place even though I have very little interest in ski or any other kinds of winter outdoor sports.
And then something happens when Tomas and his family are having a lunch at the rooftop restaurant after enjoying their morning ski on the second day. One of those occasional reports in the ski resort causes another artificial avalanche as usual, and everyone including Tomas’ family at the diner looks at the avalanche with wonder and excitement, but then this approaching avalanche, which seemed to be under control at first, begins to look alarmingly big enough to engulf them all. As soon as people start to run away in panic, the dining spot is immediately covered with the white shroud of snow smoke, and we get a brief but unnerving moment of blank uncertainty filling the whole screen for a while.
Fortunately for everyone, they merely got scared just because of a little bigger avalanche which did not reach to the restaurant at all, and everything goes back to normal not long after that, but this causes the rift in Tomas’ family due to what he did during that very moment of possible danger. While Ebba clearly sees and remembers that (you can confirm that she is not wrong at all, if you focus closely on that sequence in question), Tomas stubbornly denies that to her befuddlement, and that troubles Ebba more. She has believed that a man she loves is someone she and their kids can always depend on, but now a nagging doubt creeps into her mind.
Needless to say, it was really lucky for them and others that nothing serious happened, but she is still conflicted on how she can deal with that undeniable fact she witnessed with her very own eyes. She talks about what she saw from her husband when they have a dinner with a couple later in the evening, but Tomas still sticks to his version, and that causes another conflict between them. Spending her own time alone on the next day, she has a conversation with a woman who has a more flexible view on marriage and family, but that does not help her much and she has more doubts on her relationship with Tomas.
The strain between Ebba and Tomas begins to grow more and more even when they try to look all right in front of their kids, who are not oblivious at all to what is going on between their parents. Tomas’ close friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) comes to the ski resort with his young girlfriend later, and he and Fanni (Fanni Metelius) find themselves in a very sensitive situation they must tread carefully when Ebba speaks again about the avalanche. Becoming the reluctant mediators for Tomas and Ebba’s marital conflict, Mats and Fanni try to make things resolved well for everyone in the room, but then they come to see the fragility of their own relationship as defending or supporting Tomas and Ebba, and that leads to a very amusing conversation scene which brought lots of laughs and chuckles from the audiences around me during the screening.
Under the director/screenplay writer Ruben Östlund’s smooth, assured direction reflected by thoughtful scene composition and precise narrative rhythm, the movie effortlessly tiptoes on a thin line between tense drama and absurd comedy. It finds an abundant source of black humor in Tomas and Ebba’s increasingly frustrating conflict as recognizing their pain, anger, embarrassment, and humiliation resulted from it, and the excerpt from Antonio Vivaldi’s Summer Concerto gradually sounds like a running gag as frequently played again and again on the soundtrack along with wintry outdoor scenes. I especially like how Östlund deftly stages two different comical scenes involved with a resort employee, and then there is a hilariously embarrassing scene which is so painfully funny that you may wonder whether you can laugh about that or not.
Nevertheless, the movie never overlooks how serious the circumstance is for its characters, and the actors give excellent nuanced performances to maintain human interests in the film. Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli are convincing in their every step of depicting the constantly shifting dynamic between their characters; Kuhnke is particularly good in his subtle presentation of the gradual implosion inside Tomas as he comes to find it more difficult to deny that he made a wrong choice when his family urgently needed him, and Kongsli is equally terrific as the more opened one of the pair. While Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius bring some lightweight mood into the film, young performers Clara and Vincent Wettergren have their own small moment as Tomas and Ebba’s kids, and it reminds us again of what is being at the stake in Tomas and Ebba’s conflict.
“Force Majeure”, which received the Jury Prize of the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes film festival in last year and was also selected as Sweden’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards of this year (it was not nominated although it was selected in the final list before that), is a very funny comedy about human nature and relationship. The movie may be vicious in its barbed humor, but it observes recognizable human behaviors with amusement and understanding, and its sly finale winks at us with something to think about. As someone said, nobody’s perfect, and maybe that is what you have to keep in your mind as starting a relationship with someone.