Scandi blanche

Kate Johnstone (University College London) reviews an award winning new film, Force Majeure.

Force Majeure (on general release) finally arrives in UK cinemas via the Cannes Film Festival, where it won a prize in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section, for original and different work. It is undoubtedly both.

We see the perfect family at the start of the perfect holiday. Handsome Swede Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and his willowy wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) ski the slopes of the French Alps with their beautiful pre-adolescent son and daughter. There’s comfortable exhaustion from a hard day’s skiing, and cute sulkiness from the boy. The only fly in the ointment is Tomas’s attachment to his iPhone.

Clearly, 90 minutes of this unadulterated harmony would be excruciating for the poor viewer. Fortunately, director Ruben Östlund knows what he’s about. A slightly unhinged arrangement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons saws away beneath footage of the efforts the resort goes to in order to keep the slopes pristine. Then there’s the ominous nightly boom of cannons, fired to create controlled avalanches. It’s a metaphor which works on a number of levels: not just the gap between appearances and reality, but the tension between man and nature.

Eating lunch on an open air veranda on their second day, the family are initially awed as what seems to be another controlled avalanche heads their way. This rapidly turns to terror as it picks up speed and size. The veil of civilisation is ripped away when we see the very different reactions of Tomas and Ebba to a life-threatening situation. The repercussions of this event accumulate with Tomas’s steadfast refusal to admit what happened.

At the heart of the drama is a question about masculinity, and how it is defined in 21st century western countries. Is Tomas less of a man because of how he acted, or because he won’t admit his vulnerability? Is his true nature revealed by this event, or how he deals with it? Is Ebba a better person because her reaction was different, or because she’s a woman? Be warned: if you watch this film with a member of the opposite sex, you’re likely to have big argument on the way home.

Visually, the film is a treat, not least because of Östlund’s tendency to shoot wide, allowing the eye to room wherever it will. It also gives the close ups far greater impact when he does use them. And all of the performances are terrific, especially Kuhnke’s. Östlund finds the perfect balance between the main characteristics associated with Scandinavian film-making: glacial coolness à la Bergman, and von Trier histrionics. A force to be reckoned with.

Force Majeure (film), on general release and available on demand at

- Reviewed by Kate Johnstone, postgraduate student at UCL and Associate Editor (Reviews)


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