Review: Chivalry is Dead in Hilarious Dark Comedy Force Majeure
Sweden’s Oscar submission looks at modern-day gender and marriage.
Years ago, there was an episode of Seinfeld titled “The Fire,” in which George failed to raise the alarm in the occasion when he perceived danger. When he saw smoke at a child’s birthday party, instead of saving the day, he ran away from the women and children he was expected to protect. It was one of the highlights of the show, and not just because Jon Favreau played an angry clown; it actually asked a big social question in a very funny way: is there something about men which dictates they should put women and children first? Or do we say that because they are more likely than women to put themselves before their family? And if that is your instinct, can your marriage overcome it?
Swedish director Ruben Ostlund takes those questions and runs with them in Force Majeure, a dark comedy about a married couple with two children who go on a skiing vacation. Johannes Kuhnke plays father Tomas, whom wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) says needs this vacation to refocus his attention on the family after working too hard. This comment immediately strikes audiences as a sign that things aren’t perfect, but are perhaps perfectly typical, in their marriage. Tomas seems to be a loving father, present and affectionate; but he is also clearly not as in tune with their children as his wife. All and all, though, the family seems to have a solid foundation.
That foundation is rocked on their second day, when, while eating lunch, they see a controlled avalanche. As it builds, they become worried that it isn’t so controlled, and in his panic, Tomas runs away from the table, neglecting to account for or protect his family, who are lost momentarily in a cloud of snow. Tomas is clearly embarrassed and his children scared over what they have just experienced; but for his wife, the events are much more traumatic than something that can be laughed off. How can she go on, knowing that when in the emergency we all fear experiencing, her husband did not think of her or their children before himself?
Things become more complicated when additional people are brought into the debate. There is Karin Myrenberg’s Charlotte, vacationing without her children and husband, who see no reason that a wife and mother should put their needs to the back of the list, and questions Ebba’s old-fashioned ideas of marriage. And then there is Tomas’s best friend, divorced Mats (the very funny Kristofer Hivju) and his 20-something girlfriend (Fanni Metelius) who are dragged into the conversation when Ebba reaches her breaking point, crying over the events. The conversations are hilarious, real, and sometimes hard to watch, as Ebba’s trauma has become something much bigger than the avalanche, and they certainly don’t justify Tomas laughing off the events. After all, Ebba now assumes Tomas puts her needs behind his in all aspects of their relationship – and then Tomas makes it worse by trying to discredit Ebba, saying she’s “too emotional” to recount the events as they actually happened.
One of the funniest and freshest aspects of the film is when it shifts its focus to Fanni and Mats. We’ve all been there: witnessing another couple’s troubles, and trying to put ourselves in the same situation. Unfortunately, they begin arguing that Mats might be just like Tomas, while young Fanni assumes she would act just like Ebba. The debate becomes an argument about instincts, gender, age, and even Mats’ history with divorce is brought up, and soon they are saying things in the moment they’ll regret later that night. But Tomas and Mats are hit hard by this idea that, even as decent people in everyday life, they may lack the instinct to protect their family.
It’s always interesting to see modern day examinations of traditional marriage; as same-sex marriage and non-traditional relationships become more common, we’re seeing more diverse commentary on marriage. For example, what is the difference in genders, and why does it matter – if it does at all? The need for the characters to actually face these perceptions leads to some cringe-worthy humor. Ebba may never have thought she was the type of woman who wanted a man to protect her, but she also can’t ignore the sudden abhorrence she has towards her husband, now that she sees him as a coward. And Tomas is also disgusted by what he did, but unlike Ebba, who wants to talk it out in order to accept him, he would rather deny it.
Ostlund wrote and directed this film, and uses the snowy white setting to give Force Majeure the earie quality the film needs; it’s like a Larry David comedy in The Shining. The women tend to be filmed in close-up, while the men always given a certain amount of distance. Even when Tomas, cries we don’t see him with the closeness with which Ostlund films Ebba, making audiences far more empathetic to her than to him, initially. And while the mountains are beautiful, they also create the sensation of complete isolation, the feeling that something bad could happen and no one would ever know. Punctuated by a dramatic score, the script is realistic and sharp, and the entire cast strong; even the two children who take on the weight of their parents’ tension. Force Majeure isn’t a big movie, but it is an incredibly well executed one.
Force Majeure is available now on most VOD platforms.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.