Werner Herzog’s short documentary piece, La Soufrière, Waiting for an Inevitable Disaster, follows Herzog as he journeys into an island, which is soon to be extinct from an impending volcanic eruption. He explores the streets of visual mortality, and meets, along the way, the men who have decided to stay and die with their land. They seemed surprised at first. Why escape inevitability? The irony, of course, of the “inevitable disaster” is the disaster never came. The volcano didn’t erupt, and the island was saved. The documentary ends there, but it’s where Force Majeure begins.
It’s the start of many films: the perfect family, which, after a catastrophic event, is broken apart. Only this time, in the 2014 Swedish film written and directed by Ruben Östlund, the “catastrophic event” is the lack thereof.
A family vacationing in the French alps is confronted with a controlled avalanche gone awry. It barrels towards them one day while eating lunch, whereupon the husband, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), flees his wife and children in order to get to safety. But, of course, they were never in any real danger. The avalanche simply throws some mist at them before dying out. Tomas slowly walks back to his family. They do not ski that day.
The film moves with quiet tension. The conflict of the aftermath begins naturally with body language and curious glances. Director Ruben Östlund frames the subtle performances with resolute composition. Take for example a scene at a dinner where Tomas and his wife, Ebba (Lisa Kongsli), eat with their friends. They begin to talk about their avalanche experience as if it was an unimportant anecdote. Östlund breaks away from the traditional over-the-shoulder shot-reverse-shot, and places himself in the middle of the table. In doing this, he allows himself to isolate the characters. Tomas and Ebba fill their personal frame while their guests have their own. As Tomas and Ebba tell their story, Östlund uses his isolationist framing to reinforce their personal subtext. Force Majeure’s tension is just as much in the camera as it is in the wonderful performances, script, and sound design.
Framed with mists and space, scored with muffled explosions and sudden bursts of violin, Force Majeure is an example of a film which only aims to create a realistic world, wherein it can explore the themes it is interested in. It’s clear the director is invested in the movie’s ideas. It doesn’t pander. It simply wants to tell a story: an endlessly interesting character drama, a fascinating study into manhood. Tomas’ problem isn’t that he ran. It’s not that he isn’t a man. It’s that he won’t admit to it. He won’t accept the inevitable disaster.