The French phrase force majeure translates to a superior or irresistible power. In contract law, that meaning is expanded to describe an event (an "act of God") that excuses a party from living up to a contractual obligation, and that concept haunts innovative Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund's Force Majeure. Successful businessman Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) reacts instinctively to what may be a life-threatening situation by abandoning his wife and children to save himself. Ostlund's film depicts a family in crisis, and it's one part black comedy to two parts existential drama. Force Majeure might have delivered a character study but instead becomes a study in character — or a meditation on society's unspoken but strongly held perceptions of gender-appropriate behavior.
Winner of a Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival and the recent recipient of 10 nominations at Sweden's equivalent to the Oscars, Force Majeure takes place over the five days of a model Swedish family's vacation at a beautiful ski resort in the French Alps. Tomas' crew includes his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and two small children who are not too young to understand what their father has done. The kids are unable to express their anger and disappointment verbally, but their mother has no such trouble.
Ebba and Tomas can't seem to agree on what happened or discuss the meaning of Tomas' actions in private, but it only takes a glass of wine or two to make Ebba tell her husband-humiliating tale to a series of friends and acquaintances also staying at the resort. Their reactions and the discussions that follow provide the setting for some of the film's funniest moments. But it all seems intended as inspiration for our own eventual self-examination and debate.
Ostlund got his start making skiing films before evolving into one of Europe's most daring directors, a specialist in the vagaries of human behavior as seen in a rapidly changing world. Force Majeure is Ostlund's fourth narrative feature, but it looks like the work of a seasoned artist. It sometimes recalls the films of Stanley Kubrick not only in its precise yet unhurried visual style, but also in its willingness to embark on tangents that seem like non-sequiturs but later prove essential to the fabric of the film. Ostlund's experience shooting skiers and winter landscapes doesn't hurt, as the film's striking widescreen images suggest an epic struggle between man and his own nature that supports the film's themes.
Tomas' response to the near-catastrophic event is not as unusual as it may seem, even among those who feel certain they'd react heroically in a life-or-death situation. The press materials for Force Majeure include a summary of an academic study of 18 major shipwrecks and their survivors, and they suggest it's much better to be a man of a certain age than a woman or child when disaster strikes. The highest survival rates belong to ship captains and crew despite their pressing social and legal responsibilities. Ostlund's film may be fiction, but its insights on human frailty are all too real.