Force Majeure introduces us to a catalog-perfect family on a very photogenic ski vacation: Thomas, a handsome young father taking some time off of work, his capable, patient wife Ebba, who just happens to look like a supermodel, and their two blonde kids Harry and Vera. Like the beginning of a horror movie, their existence seems generally ideal with just a few pointed cracks in its perfect exterior. While checking in to the hotel, Ebba casually mentions to a fellow guest that Thomas will not be working on this trip, instead he’ll be focusing on his family. He jokingly balks at the suggestion, but the implication is obvious – Thomas has a hard time devoting himself to his family; Ebba is hoping this vacation will amend the issue. And like a horror film, with this seed planted, the unraveling that follows comes as no surprise.
The moment around which the entire film pivots carries a huge weight. The scope of its effects is revealed slowly, unfolding in unexpected ways and inopportune moments as these things are wont to do. In the moment, it’s terrifying: an avalanche barely misses them while they dine at the scenic restaurant overlooking the slopes. Instead of protecting his family, Thomas grabs his phone and runs off, leaving Ebba and the kids in a white-out, covered in powder. But when the whiteness finally clears and Thomas awkwardly lumbers back to the lunch table in his ski boots and tries to continue eating lunch like nothing happened, something is different. The pacing of the film changes. Thomas’ jovial demeanor is somehow threatening, oblivious, insensitive. Ebba looks more strained. The children withdraw.
Although the moment Thomas makes his fateful dash barely lasts 30 seconds, it sets off a series of life-altering events that highlight the ultimate demise of his masculinity. Although Ebba and the children initially feel betrayed, it becomes quickly clear that however badly he injured the family unit, it doesn’t come close to the major damage wreaked upon Thomas’ own ego. Instead of dwelling on his role within the family, his self-obsession steers the film to center around him and his own crisis. Unable to shoulder the reality of his own weakness in character, Thomas falls apart at the seams. Selfishly he can’t normalize until Ebba orchestrates a reconfiguration of the traditional family dynamic (she pretends to hurt herself skiing and allows Thomas to ‘save’ her as the children look on). Only then, like a giddy little kid, Thomas is temporarily appeased.
Unable to cope with his poor survival skills, he avoids fessing up and instead opts to get drunk and go skiing with his mate, Mats. Of course this only exacerbates and draws attention to the issue. Not just for Thomas but for all men. After a particularly uncomfortable dinner that winds up centering around Thomas’ disappointing reaction to the near-disaster, Mats, goes through his own (em)masculine panic. Inconsolable, his poor girlfriend is forced to comfort him late into the night as he devolves into a disgusting, blubbering mess. It’s infectious, embarrassing, and reflects poorly on them, only getting worse as the film progresses. These poor women, faced with sniveling man-children begging them to help make them seem strong again, must choose to either go along with the charade or destroy their family unit. The effort it takes to uphold the tradition masculine ideal makes skiing the Alps look easy.
Force Majeure may pose as a tale of wilderness survival, but in reality (with the notable exception of that pesky rogue avalanche) all contact the family has with nature is highly controlled. After bundling up and being shuttled to the top of the mountain by various people-movers every day, they retreat to their cramped little room in the dizzyingly maze-like luxury hotel. Every night director Ruben Östland reminds us of man’s triumph over our environment with an epic and satisfying symphony of darkness and blinking lights, pristine snow and man-made machinery (set to this fine young man’s masterful rendition of Vivaldi’s “Summer”), as the mechanizations of the resort and winter weather prepare for the big day of skiing just on the other side of sunrise.
Ebba and the kids survive when the avalanche misses them. And later, when they ski into a white-out, unable to see a damn thing, they pull through yet again. But surviving Thomas’ histrionics when he realizes he is the scarediest cat in his family is the real test. A final challenge in which Östlund stages a reenactment of Idiot Spanish Bus Driver Almost Kills Students, cements Ebba’s feminine superiority. The look on her face as they disembark their teetering bus and make their way down a winding mountain road on foot illustrates with finality her regret at Thomas’ impotence.