One of the most talked about the concept during the present COVID-19 pandemic is that of the legal clause of ‘force majeure’. A critically acclaimed film from 2014, co-produced by Sweden, France, Norway and Denmark, has applied this concept to human relationships to weave an intriguing cinematic narrative.
The first thing that strikes us about Force Majeure (dir: Ruben Östlund) is the title of the film. Borrowed from a common expression in law and jurisprudence, force majeure (literally meaning ‘superior force’ in French) refers to a clause often introduced into legal contracts to absolve a party from liability in the case of an uncontrollable event such as war, catastrophes or labour strikes. Ordinarily, the clause is invoked when events outside human agency such as natural disasters – earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, or a so-called ‘act of god’ – precipitate a crisis. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, force majeure has become one of the most discussed terms in economics, finance and international trade. Ruben Östlund borrows this concept, deploying it in an ironic sense, almost in a manner of a social experiment to examine if contractual obligations implicit in human relationships are rendered invalid in the case of an unforeseen calamity. But then, could familial relationships be equated with contracts? Are there duties and obligations which are inviolable and sacrosanct? What do these roles and duties reveal about human relationships? Do they make unrealistic and gendered demands on how we understand and embrace relationships?
The film introduces us to Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) – a seemingly well-off Swedish married couple with two adorable kids. They have arrived at a ski-resort somewhere in the Swiss Alps – a hard-earned holiday for them to rejuvenate and renew their family bond. The family’s vacation in this spectacular location is shaken by an unforeseen event. While having breakfast in the hotel’s scenic open-air restaurant, the family witnesses an avalanche coming down the mountain. Initially appearing harmless, the avalanche assumes a threatening form and seems to lunge towards the restaurant. Guests start fleeing in panic, Tomas being one of them. Thankfully, no damage is done and it turns out to be a false alarm. As it landed near the restaurant, the avalanche was anything but dangerous. It was human-controlled and one of the many triggered artificially to ensure there was enough snow on the skiing ground. Physically unharmed, the family is shocked and confused by Tomas’s bewildering flight from the scene without first ensuring his wife and children’s safety. For Ebba, a woman who is morally committed and entrenched in marital values, this is a betrayal and her simmering anger affects the children as they brood and sulk through the ski sessions and over meals with the couple’s friends.
Tomas’s perplexing behaviour during the ‘avalanche’ is brought up again and again by Ebba – while they are with friends and during private moments with her husband. She is disturbed and angry and her attacks on Tomas grow fiercer until Tomas breaks down and wails uncontrollably while admitting being a victim of his own ‘baser instincts’. Tomas’ meltdown does seem to pacify Ebba but creates a problem of a different order. The family has a known culprit – who also happens to be the ‘father’, the ‘husband’ and the ‘provider’. His ignominious admission of guilt also means that the patriarchal order underlining the happy family is also threatened. An attempt is made by Ebba to restore her husband’s dignity, especially in the eyes of the children, before the eventful holiday draws to a close.
Östlund’s grim and cynical view of marriage and sexuality is visually underlined by a unique formal style – a mise-en-scene which combines extended wide-angled shots; the tonal contrast between the vast whiteness of the snow-covered landscape and the warm but artificial interiors of the hotel; a slow unfolding of the dramatic action. Actors perform intense scenes largely in continuous shots to avoid fragmenting scenes and to allow emotions to flow freely. Corporeality plays a crucial role – the main characters are seen in various stages of ablutions – they brush, wash, urinate, get drunk, and even shed copious volume of tears during the moment of distress. The filmmaker is not addressing your eyes and ears only but drawing you into the diegesis through your other senses, especially the sense of touch. Much of the action takes place in the so-called in-between spaces – corridors of the hotel, the elevator, the toilets, the vestibule leading to the cable car station, the cable cars themselves.
Force Majeure becomes a memorable cinematic experience because of its intriguing and astute sound design. Mechanical sounds of various kinds add to the tension and anxiety in the scenes, sonically conveying the characters state of mind. Sounds of explosions in the snow, mechanical sounds of cable cars and funiculars, whirring of vacuum cleaners, the buzz of electrical toothbrushes are all exaggerated above naturalistic levels. These sounds transcend their functional roles and convey the simmering tension in the couple’s relationship.
The various mechanistic sounds of the location are punctuated by sudden silences, and repeated short snatches of Antonio Vivaldi’s Summer evoke an unpleasant feeling. The recurring use of silence alternating with sonorous sequences heighten the sense of an impending disaster – both in the relational and natural world. An ominous feeling pervades Force Majeure like a bad memory, even in the bewildering coda – a scene in which the tourist’s nerves are tested during a hazardous ride back to the airport on a tour bus. Although a drama of extreme human emotions, Östlund cleverly plays on our fear of the unknown and our subconscious memories of disaster films. But it is not the vagaries of nature that Östlund is interested in but the disintegrating institution of marriage, the assumptions on which stability of marriages are seen to be founded. While Tomas’s denial and eventual admission of his selfishness and unmanly behaviour are put under the microscope, Ebba’s retrograde and morally entrenched view of sexual partnership is also mocked. Relationships are inherently fragile and all it takes is a faux disaster to expose it.
Force Majeure is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar
Norwegian, Swedish, French, English, Italian, Comedy, Drama, Color