Holidays: they’re always too short, and yet often too long. For the healthy-looking family whose skiing holiday Force Majeure depicts, they’re definitely too long. The French Alps may be picturesque (especially as photographed in this gorgeous-looking movie), but they’re pressure-cookers for madness, with their endless snow, punishing daily routines, and uneasy social conventions.
Early scenes of the family skiing and hanging out at their lodge are permeated by an atmosphere of omen and unease. Long takes and distant booms put the audience on edge, waiting for the inevitable disaster to occur. Will it be infidelity? A death? Will the children vanish off the side of the mountain? When the disaster does eventuate - indirectly involving a controlled avalanche - a small action sets in motion events that threaten to destroy the family.
It is Force Majeure’s obsessive honing in on action, reaction and consequence that makes it so emotionally compelling - and so funny. It’s not quite cringe humour, but the film’s sly, detailed observations of human behaviour are awkwardly hilarious all the same. The long takes - most scenes feature only one or two cuts, if that - put the actors and audience on the spot, making every moment pregnant with doubt and decision and scrutiny. There’s emotional peril in nearly every scene.
Most intriguing of all is the movie’s investigation into masculinity, how it manifests, and how it can be broken down. The film hinges around a momentary lapse in responsibility, the subsequent misremembering and/or denial of it, and ultimately the defensiveness and self-loathing that comes about from that. It’s a fascinating downward spiral of male ego, at once painful and amusing to watch. We see so many laudatory treatments of masculinity in movies that it’s a genuine treat to see a film tear it down for the self-aggrandising bluster it so often is. Johannes Kuhnke’s performance is fearless as a broken man refusing to admit his own weakness, and he’s set against Game of Thrones’ ginger-bearded Kristofer Hivju, whose charming, grounded, yet wilfully hypocritical character offsets him beautifully.
These characters’ female counterparts don’t fare quite as well. Though they’re well-performed and have their own agency, their narrative role is mostly as foils and triggers for the disintegration of maleness. I don’t believe this is a sexist movie or anything; it’s just a movie specifically about masculinity, and I guess it’s good at least that it acknowledges that.
Force Majeure is also a visual treat. The French Alps are photogenic to begin with, but the movie’s calm, detached shooting style renders them as a serene battlefield upon which its neurotic characters wage war. So calm is that style, in fact, that if I’m not mistaken, post-production tricks have been employed to artificially increase the length of pauses in dialogue, simply to make their rhythms that much more uncomfortable. The editing is so good that this completely not-horror movie also contains what I consider to be the best jump scare of the year.
Force Majeure keeps bringing little uncomfortable surprises right up until the final sequence, a bizarre episode that offers its main male characters one final chance to puff their chests out. It’s a completely false moment, but one that appropriately sums up this wonderful, strange, human film. See it with someone with whom you want to feel weird holding hands.