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‘Force Majeure’ wrestles with expectations

“Force Majeure” (“Turist”) (2014). Cast: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Karin Myrenberg, Brady Corbet, Johannes Moustos, Jorge Lattof, Adrian Heinisch. Director: Ruben Östlund. Screenplay: Ruben Östlund. Web site. Trailer.

When different types of everyday circumstances arise, we’d all like to think we know how we and others will react. The expectations associated with such situations offer a degree of predictability and reassurance that we find comforting. But what happens when unforeseen events occur? Do we know how we and others will respond? And what happens if any expectations we hold about such scenarios go unfulfilled? Those are among the many thorny questions raised in the recently released, darkly satirical Swedish comedy, “Force Majeure” (“Turist”).

For those unfamiliar with the term force majeure, it’s a French expression (usually, though not exclusively, used in a legal context) that refers to a superior (and often-uncontrollable) force, such as an extraordinary act of nature, like a flood or hurricane. In other contexts, it can be used to characterize an exceptional man-made action or event, one capable of having profound, perhaps even devastating, impact. In the case of this film, force majeure effects arise from both of these sources, some of which are obvious and some of which are more insidious, but all of which threaten to wreak havoc in many ways.

When a young Swedish family embarks on a skiing holiday in the French Alps, they look forward to a fun time together. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), a successful businessman, is a good, though somewhat-overworked provider for his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children, Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren). The hope is that the trip will allow the industrious breadwinner an opportunity to relax and reconnect with his family, and, at the outset, everything seems to go according to plan. However, circumstances change drastically on the second day of the vacation, when events transpire that threaten not only the trip, but also the family’s future well-being.

While enjoying a pleasant lunch at their resort’s outdoor terrace café, the family witnesses a controlled avalanche, one of many routinely triggered by slope managers to prevent more massive snow buildups from forming and potentially endangering skiers. Restaurant patrons marvel at the sight, snapping cell phone photos and admiring the awesome, though potentially catastrophic power of nature unleashed. Still, as a controlled avalanche, the effects are intended to be localized, with no impact whatsoever on anyone safely out of harm’s way.

A pleasant ski vacation in the French Alps threatens to turn into a tragedy for a visiting Swedish family when an avalanche strikes in the satirical comedy, “Force Majeure.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

However, as this (allegedly) carefully orchestrated event unfolds, it quickly becomes apparent that something may be going terribly wrong. The wall of snow crashing down the mountainside seems to grow larger than anticipated, with its massive white outflow headed directly for the unsuspecting diners. With the avalanche racing toward the terrace, the restaurant’s patrons flee in fright. But not everyone reacts as one might expect they would (or “should”) under the circumstances – most notably Tomas, who bolts for cover, leaving Ebba and the children to fend for themselves.

Despite the frightening nature of this spectacle, the event leaves diners largely unscathed; the snow cloud that overspreads the terrace, though larger than expected, turns out to be mostly harmless powder, not the suffocating mass that spectators suspected was about engulf them. Everyone breathes a heavy sigh of relief. But, even though no one is physically hurt, that’s not to suggest no damage occurs, as Tomas, Ebba and the kids come to discover in the ensuing days.

That damage first surfaces during the evening after the incident, when Tomas and Ebba share drinks with a pair of fellow vacationers, Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg) and Brady (Brady Corbet). A casual conversation about the event quickly turns politely ugly when Ebba expresses her anger over Tomas abandoning her and the children during the height of the incident. Tomas claims he doesn’t recall doing so, sparking a controlled argument between the couple. Given that they’re out in public with people they barely know, Tomas and Ebba manage to contain themselves, and the situation seems to dissipate. But what appears to be over is far from settled.

Over the next few days, troubles simmer. In fact, when Tomas and Ebba find themselves in the private company of their newly arrived close friends, Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and Fanni (Fanni Metelius), matters between them resurface and escalate. And, this time, the quarreling spouses’ impact is not limited to the feuding couple; the fallout extends beyond the boundaries of their relationship, with effects spreading far and wide.

As the intensifying story unfolds, questions emerge: Will Tomas and Ebba reconcile their differences? What outcomes will materialize from their contentious discourse? What sorts of ancillary effects will result, and how will they impact those so affected? But, perhaps most importantly, how will everyone concerned respond if comparable circumstances should arise again?

Tomas, a hard-working breadwinner (Johannes Bah Kuhnke, left), seeks to get away from it all on a ski vacation to the French Alps with his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli, second from left), and their children, Vera (Clara Wettergren, second from right) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren, right), in “Force Majeure.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

So, if you were faced with the prospect of being overcome by an approaching avalanche, how would you respond? Would you be a noble soul, rushing to protect loved ones? Would you run away in terror to save your own behind? Or would you follow some other course, such as intentionally getting out of harm’s way so that you could be of service to others as a rescuer in the event’s aftermath? Ultimately, whatever course you pursue, it comes down to your beliefs and the choices you make with them, for they will determine what circumstances manifest.

Situations like this often bring our fears to the surface, giving us an opportunity to test ourselves and, more importantly, to examine the beliefs driving those apprehensions. This can prove to be remarkably beneficial going forward, especially among those of us seeking to surmount anxieties that might be preventing us from furthering our personal growth. But, as valuable as those benefits can be, these situations also tend to bring out our beliefs regarding expectations. And, if those expectations go unfulfilled, they also have the potential to shed light on our beliefs concerning judgment.

For example, Ebba feels betrayed that Tomas runs when the avalanche strikes. As a husband and father, she believes, he’s supposed to be a provider and protector in all circumstances, no matter what hazards are involved. When Ebba’s expectations in this regard aren’t met, she believes her husband is shirking his presumed paternal responsibilities. She judges him to be a coward, a view that subsequently puts their relationship in jeopardy.

Such belief-based assumptions thus illuminate our expectations about a host of related matters, like gender roles, which frequently go unquestioned. But is Ebba’s belief about how her husband should respond fixed and absolute? When threatened with a situation where one’s continued existence is at stake, is it wrong to automatically abandon one’s survival instinct, even if it conflicts with long-established expectations regarding gender-based roles? Couldn’t Ebba, as a parent herself, step up to play the role of protector just as readily as Tomas? What’s more, is it acceptable for Ebba to robotically (and conveniently) hide behind the shield of “the fairer sex” under such circumstances? The beliefs the protagonists hold regarding these matters will affect how their resulting reality materializes, for better or worse.

In terms of conscious creation, the means by which we manifest our existence through the power of our beliefs, all options are equally viable, depending on what intents we put forth. So to assume that one belief-based course of action is intrinsically and unilaterally correct at the expense of all others is, naturally, contrary to what the philosophy maintains. Even though it may be true that a particular path is considered preferable or more popular than others, this is not to suggest that it is indisputably the only one that can or should be pursued. Different individuals hold different beliefs, which, of necessity, will produce different expectations and divergent outcomes, and judging others with a tunnel vision view of reality flies in the face of this notion (not to mention being patently unfair).

This is especially important to bear in mind in an age when many of us are seeking to expand the range of what we consider to be acceptable beliefs and behavior. If we cling to a narrower view, the palette of possible outcomes is automatically diminished, leaving many potential probabilities unexplored, something that also runs counter to the basic tents of conscious creation. Those seeking to move beyond traditional modes of behavior, like those associated with conventional gender roles, should keep cognizant of this, especially when it comes to judging the actions and responses of others.

In the wake of a near-tragedy, the marriage between Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke, right) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli, left) gets put to the test in director Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Those under scrutiny for their behavior should bear the foregoing in mind as well. For example, when the family embarks on their vacation, Ebba hopes that Tomas will use the time to relax and reconnect with her and the kids, something with which he historically seems to have had difficulty; given that he spends so much of his time being a provider for his wife and children, he appears to have trouble winding down to enjoy himself. And that may be particularly problematic for him now, especially if he’s expected to continue playing the same provider and protector role during what is supposed to be a time of enjoyment. How can he realistically be expected to unwind if he’s also supposed to continue being duty-bound? What’s more, how can Ebba realistically be upset with him if he fails to meet her expectations on either of those fronts? It’s a no-win situation for Tomas, no matter what he believes or attempts to manifest for himself. And his prevailing withdrawal response shouldn’t come as a surprise, either, given the myriad expectations being heaped on him (mostly by his wife).

This is where the role of overcoming fears comes back into play. If Tomas truly hopes his circumstances will change, he needs to look at what’s holding him back. This, of course, involves his beliefs, some of which most likely relate to his fears about how to proceed. This consideration ultimately affects not only the reality he experiences, but also how well he manages his sense of personal power, both under these circumstances and others.

It’s quite fitting that all of this comes to light in the wake of an avalanche, an event that metaphorically mirrors the internal beliefs of the protagonists. As is hinted at the film’s outset, and as becomes readily apparent as the story unfolds, it’s obvious that trouble has been brewing in the couple’s marriage for some time, even if it has gone unaddressed. The avalanche, however, is symbolic of the weight of all of these issues coming crashing down on Tomas and Ebba. And these issues, like the avalanche itself, threaten to crush the couple unless they take steps to rectify it.

The implications of this are far-reaching, too. As the film illustrates, these issues affect not only the couple but also their children; on a number of occasions, the kids act out, largely because they sense the growing tension in their parents’ relationship and fear that mom and dad may be splitting up. They also affect the couple’s friends, such as when Mats and Fanni begin to question the status of their own relationship in the wake of Tomas and Ebba’s revelations. Indeed, the unleashed “avalanche” of emotions is difficult to confine to their source, especially when they prompt others to question the nature of their beliefs and realities. What starts out as an individual or joint creation holds the potential to quickly expand into a mass event, with implications that have far-reaching impact.

The arrival of Mats (Kristofer Hivju), a good friend of a married couple experiencing relationship troubles in the wake of a near-tragedy, holds the potential to make a complex situation even more complicated in “Force Majeure.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

So how are these potentially dysfunctional circumstances “corrected”? One way is to keep an open mind, to consider untried possibilities and employ beliefs related to their manifestation. This becomes apparent when Tomas and Ebba spend time apart from one another. For instance, in one scene, Ebba converses with Charlotte about alternative relationship options, giving her a fresh perspective about what’s possible. Similarly, the somewhat-henpecked Tomas rediscovers his sense of personal empowerment, not to mention his ability to relax, when he joins Mats for some good, old-fashioned male bonding time. The benefits each spouse realizes from these experiences help to prepare them for dealing with their mutual issues. One hopes they’ll be able to work things out.

“Force Majeure” definitely won’t appeal to everyone. Some may see the film’s bitingly satirical approach to these emotionally charged personal matters as being too dark or cynical. However, like many Scandinavian films, the picture’s razor-sharp insights cut to the core of what’s really going on in the couple’s relationship, exposing the truth for what it is, no matter how much either spouse would like to ignore or deny it. The film accomplishes this with an often wickedly funny script and a narrative that relies more on showing than telling. Credit writer-director Ruben Östlund for a job well done.

Even though this picture may not be widely known, prospective audiences have a variety of options for viewing it. It premiered at a number of film festivals and is still available in select theaters, particularly those that specialize in foreign and independent cinema. It’s also available for instant video streaming and on-demand cable TV viewing, as well as for purchase on DVD and Blu-ray disk.

“Force Majeure” has been recognized in a number of awards competitions, too. It won the Critics Choice Award for best foreign language film, and it earned comparable nominations in the Golden Globe and upcoming Independent Spirit Award contests. The picture surprisingly failed to grab an Oscar nomination, but it did earn accolades at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner and an Un Certain Regard Award nominee.

The expectations we hold of ourselves and of others can be a dual-edged sword. In some cases, they can empower us, giving us the confidence to know how we’ll respond to certain circumstances. In others, however, they can form the bars of a cage that traps us within the confines of personally imposed limitations from which escape can be difficult, if not seemingly impossible. The trick is to know the difference, and “Force Majeure” helps enlighten us about this. And, when we’re able to make the distinction, we just might find that there really are no insurmountable forces – except for those that we allow to hold sway.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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