Force Majeure

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on November 10.]

Want to start a war between husbands and wives or friends of opposite sexes? Watch Force Majeure together. My wife went to sleep, so we didn’t get to have the discussion. But this is a film that raises questions of the differences between men and women, fathers and mothers. I suspect that, like the characters in the film, the reactions of men and women will match the reactions of Ebba and Tomas, Swedes on vacation at a French skiing resort.

This is not a film that, even if I were able, I would really want to summarize. It’s too layered and complex to render some kind of verdict about. Peter Travers, in Rolling Stone, wrote, “Think of this avalanche of surprises as National Lampoon’s Swedish Ski Vacation as directed by Ingmar Bergman. And that’s still not the half of it.”  It is about the pressures on husbands and wives from within and without, and the struggles of every family, but it can’t be reduced to that. It’s about the differences between fathers and mothers, but its complexity defies simplistic descriptions.

It’s humorous and heart-breaking at the same time. Vivaldi’s “L’Estate” (Summer!) from The Four Seasons keeps breaking in at transitional moments, and there’s little else to the soundtrack. Ebba twice ruins dinner parties by telling the story of Tomas running away from his family during an avalanche, which is the central pivot of the plot. Mats and Fanny have a long argument that will seem familiar to any couple who has been together for any length of time. Omnipresent is the janitor, who seems to enjoy arguments between couples, as he is present the three times Ebba and Tomas step out of their room to talk outside of their children’s earshot. Then he steps into the elevator in the middle of Mats’ and Fanny’s argument.

Tomas is caught fast in the web of expectations that modern society has for men, for fathers, for husbands; he very literally gets caught up in a group of what look like frat boys, yelling, drinking, puking, and yelling some more. He knows that his decision in the moment of the impending avalanche runs contrary to everything that he wants to be, and everything he is expected to be, and he hates himself for it. Or does he? Is his remorse an act, like his act of caring fatherhood? Is it an act, because it’s what’s expected of him?

Charlotte represents for the film and for Ebba the ideal of independence, who decides she can be both a good mother, and have various romantic relationships. She has both long-term and short-term relationships, she tells the incredulous Ebba. She doesn’t bow to moral, marital, or motherly expectations. Ebba and Tomas, on the other hand, are bound—and isn’t that what marriage and family are all about?

The question, implied by the title of the film, is whether the unforeseen circumstances of Tomas’ actions in the face of the avalanche are enough to keep Ebba from fulfilling her “contract” of marriage, and whether Tomas will continue to try, in spite of his failures even to live up to his own expectations for himself. Like the small explosions that try to keep the avalanche danger under control, the hidden crevasses in Tomas’ and Ebba’s marriage make their life unstable. The dangers of a sideways word or a biting remark or the defensiveness in the face of obvious mistakes mark out the tracks on the face of every marriage. Tomas’ first reaction to Ebba’s story at the dinner with Charlotte and her American friend is palpably uncomfortable, as it would be if one were actually at the table.

I think most of the reviews I’ve read realize that this movie is about male and female roles and the tensions inherent in what are considered “normal” roles, as well as in the ways that people intentionally try to subvert what they think those roles prescribe. But what those reviewers miss (unable to see beyond the extremes represented by Tomas’ and Ebba’s seemingly normal, nuclear family on the one hand and, on the other, by Charlotte’s licentiousness) is that Force Majeure manages to challenge all our easy familial justifications and excuses for why we do what we do. It’s not only Tomas who is constantly skewered on the point of Ebba’s accusatory knife. Mats and Fanny feel it, and maybe even Charlotte is shaken by Ebba’s questions (self-justifying and defensive though they may be). The ingenuity of the writing, directing, and acting is that the viewer feels it keenly, too. Self-defense or apology? Rationalization or repentance? Taking sides or reconciliation? Give in or fight back?

As awkward as it is to watch (because it hits close to home!), Force Majeure represents the irresistible compulsion that exists in every marriage, where the spouse becomes the uncomfortable mirror in which we see ourselves as we truly are, and not as we would like to be. In the Christian sense, that’s where confession and forgiveness find their place. At the same time, if we deny ourselves constant self-justification, it can also push us further toward the people we should be, in genuine love and self-denial.

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