“Force majeure” film review: What would you do?

Force majeure. According to Investopedia.com: “A French term literally translated as ‘greater force,’ this clause is included in contracts to remove liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes that interrupt the expected course of events and restrict participants from fulfilling obligations.” A so-called “act of God” is a good example of this.

One such occurrence sets the stage for the plot and theme of Force majeure, a stylish Swedish movie written and directed by Ruben Östlund that scored the Cannes Film Festival’s Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard (special mention) category.

Tomas (Johannes Bah Kunke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are a Swedish middle-class couple vacationing in the French Alps with their young son and daughter Harry and Vera who, in a bit of clever casting, are played by real life sister and brother, Clara and Vincent Wettergren. Some sly dialogue in passing fills us in on the fact that this ski holiday is a rarity, as Tomas is so busy with his career. These throwaway lines (the film is mostly in Swedish and French, with subtitles and some dialogue in English) inform what happens next.

We won’t tell exactly what happens next, except to say that in this precarious world of climate change, war and disaster, this morality play ponders what we’d do when faced with a force majeure.

The perpetrator of the apparent misdeed is in denial over the course of action (or lack of) when the titular force majeure happens, which rocks the marriage and parent-child relationships to the core. The film becomes an examination of gender roles, marital relations, parental responsibility, and of this petit bourgeois couple and their children. Interaction with a janitor at the posh Alpine resort where the family is vacationing also cannily injects a class dimension into the story. As things come undone the perp seeks redemption.

Force majeure is in a long line of artistic work – theater, film, TV, painting-reflecting the dour Scandinavian psyche. But I find Force majeure most in keeping with the theme of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. In any case, there is some stunning cinematography of ski and snow. Plus excellent use of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” The ending of this highly philosophical film reminded me of Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Sorry to be so enigmatic, but since loose lips sink ships, you can find out for yourself what is meant by that.

Force majeure opens this week in national release.



Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.