Force Majeure


The plot of this Swedish language film revolves around one quick event. A family on holiday in the French Alps are having lunch in an open air restaurant overlooking the snow covered mountains. They are watching a controlled avalanche but the cascading wall of ice doesn’t appear to be stopping and everyone in the crowded eatery panics, thinking they are going to be enveloped. The mother naturally rushes to her children, her instincts telling her to protect them but the father reacts very differently. Everything is covered in a cloud of freezing fog and the children scream out ‘Daddy’ but Daddy has run away.
It turns out that no one was ever in any danger. The avalanche stopped a safe distance from the resort as planned and the fog was just the water vapour kicked up. Dad returns to the table relieved that everything is okay but he is wrong, everything is not okay.
Everything up to this point plays out like a disaster movie; the family enjoy themselves at first, skiing and having fun together but then nature turns on them and they are divided. The resulting separation is not physical though, it is emotional and it isn’t Mother Nature that devastates their world, it is the true nature of the father. The wife and the children have seen him for what he is; selfish and cowardly.
The title of the film, Force Majeure, is perfect. The expression commonly refers to an irresistible all powerful compulsion but it has another meaning in law that is just as fitting. In that context it is a standard clause found in construction and supply contracts that means something unforeseeable that prevents someone from fulfilling their obligations. The father here has basic duties to his family that he finds himself unable to honour. His actions have undermined his role as the patriarch. Interestingly the original Swedish title is Turist which simply translates as Tourist and this too has a double meaning. His role within the family as provider and protector is exposed as nothing more than something he is playing at. It isn’t what he really does, it isn’t what he really is, it isn’t where he belongs. That man was just visiting and now he has to go back to his normal state. 
Within all of this the film really examines masculinity. There is an argument that it is humanity generally that is under the microscope but I don’t think this is the intention. My reading of it is that it is a particular type of maleness that is being deconstructed. It is about the fronts we put on as adults but specifically it looks at the fragility of machoism.
By default, or possibly quite deliberately, this makes the film seem pro-feminine (not feminist, that’s a slightly different thing). The wife is not unimpeachable though, she is believably flawed and the movie does also look at the judgements women make about men. All in all Force Majeure is a fascinating study of emotional intelligence, family, marriage, maturity, instinct and trust.

It is difficult to pinpoint what makes a film typically European, so regularly does international cinema challenge these ideas, but it is hard to see this story working as well in an American setting. Foreign language films do often seem to veer toward social comment, because Hollywood has the monopoly on big budget special effects stuff, and maybe but it’s just through practice but they are better at it. This isn’t as heavy on the realism as the Dardenne brothers but it does all seem very believable. (The totally unnecessary shot of the mum’s naked breasts feels a little continental too, they just aren’t as prudish about this stuff on mainland Europe.

The publicity for this film describes it as a ‘wicked funny black comedy’ which I don’t see at all. I didn’t find any of it even marginally amusing, darkly or otherwise, but it is brilliant nonetheless. Force Majeure won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year showing once again that the prizes given out at that festival are a much better indicator of quality than any of the big awards ceremonies in the UK or the States.

Force Majeure is out now. Don’t run from it.

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