The biggest difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense. Stories must follow a plot, character arcs, and motivations when in reality, people do completely nonsensical things all the time. You may find yourself often asking things like “Why did I lie to my mom?” or “Why did I buy this thing I don’t need?” or “Why did I start that fight with my boyfriend for no reason?” The truth likely lies somewhere deep in your subconscious – it’s instinctual. We have no control over our gut reactions to things, but we do have a prefrontal cortex to protect us from acting upon them. Except in those rare circumstances when we don’t and our deep-seated Neandertal instincts roar to the surface before we can stop them. Force Majeure highlights just such a moment.
The plot is simple: A young Swedish family is vacationing at an Alpine ski resort when one day while they’re eating lunch on an outdoor patio, an avalanche tumbles down the mountain, headed right toward them. Instead of trying to save his family, the father, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kunke), gets up and runs away – leaving his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children for dead. Then the avalanche stops before reaching the patio and no one is harmed, but now they’re all forced to try to enjoy the rest of their vacation and lives while carrying the knowledge that Tomas abandoned them in the face of danger. And it slowly destroys them all.
When you watch a movie like this, you can’t help but ask yourself, “What would I do in that situation?” We’re all the heroes of our own story, but what if you realized that you actually weren’t a hero at all? You’re something almost worse than a villain – you’re a coward. That’s the inner turmoil that Tomas struggles with in Force Majeure and at first, he simply doesn’t believe it. He creates an alternate version of what happened in his mind and denies that he ran away at all, which drives Ebba berserk. She was there, she saw it with her own eyes. He abandoned his family! But Tomas rejects her version of events because to accept them would mean accepting the reality that he is, in fact, a coward.
We do this all the time. We edit, enhance, and sometimes even black out memories altogether if they’re too painful. When a memory takes up too much space and gravitas in our minds, we must alter it somehow to make the load lighter because we’re simply trying to survive. What’s particularly interesting about the film is that it’s loosely based on true events. The writer and director, Ruben Östlund, said that the film was inspired by a similar incident when his friends – a husband and wife – were dining at a restaurant when a masked gunman entered. Instead of protecting his wife, the husband dove for cover. This inspired Östlund to do research on couples who survive traumatic incidents. He discovered that a high percentage of them end up divorcing. Basically, Hollywood’s been lying to us (shocker there!). Titanic’s Jack and Rose wouldn’t have made it as a couple anyway and there’s no way that Speed’s Annie and Jack stayed together after that bus blew up.
Instead of bowing to those Hollywood tropes, Force Majeure explores the uncomfortable realities of human nature. We’re all survivalists at heart. Of course, not all people are cowards and we often hear heroic tales of men and women sacrificing themselves for others in the face of danger. I’m not making the argument that everyone is a coward, but bad people walk among us too, as evidenced by the swath of true crime docuseries sitting in all our Netflix queues.
Because Force Majeure is a Swedish film, it doesn’t follow the typical cadence of American films. I beg of you, do not watch Downhill, the American remake starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It’s awful because it glosses over the messy spaces Force Majeure revels in. Ebba’s emotional avalanche hits Tomas square in the face as she rehashes the incident with anyone who will listen. Despite the psychological trauma, Force Majeure is also a rather funny film, which makes sense because when faced with the excruciating awkwardness of humanity, laughter is often the best remedy.
If you’re in the mood to see some pretty French Alps and Wes Anderson-esque cinematography while simultaneously laughing and cringing, check out Force Majeure on Plex!