The Avalanche

Force Majeure (2014)

Force Majeure (2014) | TriArt Film
TriArt Film

Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure begins on the side of a mountain. On the white expanses of the French Alps, a needling photographer ushers a reluctant family forward for photos. You know these situations, even if you haven’t been skiing in the French Alps. At a theme park, on a cruise ship. You pose, you smile, you take the ticket and look at the photos later. They never get it right, but oh well, they try. 

The photographer (off-screen) huddles the family together: Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their children Vera and Harry (played by real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren). The water repellant-treated polyester of their pricy, spotless ski jackets crinkles against each other, Ebba huddled down to encourage her children to smile, and Tomas standing on the end, erect. Their smiles are forced, open-mouthed and phony. (Only real sociopaths enjoy having their photos taken, and this is, sadly, a movie about very human people.)

“Now Mister,” the photographer directs, “put your head on your wife. Head on head together.” 

Tomas and Ebba’s helmets clunk inelegantly against one another, and they grimace. Cut to title.

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I currently find myself in the lonely expanse of my late 20s, neither energetic enough to partake in what’s bad for me nor wise enough to really know what’s good for me. What can you do? I am in graduate school now, which is basically a haven of generalized arrested development. When folks grimace or question the choice I made to return to a life of homework—it’s called coursework now, thanks—I promise them that this was always in the cards. I knew I was going to do this, and anyone who knows me knows it’s what I was supposed to do. I was always who I am, sadly.

I am not the only person I know who has gone back to school. Some of my peers, people I met at the start of this very decade, nursing from the same bagged wine teat in sweaty, Midwestern basements, are lawyers. How this happened, I’m not 100% positive. It seems to have something to do with “having gone to law school.” What I can tell you about my lawyer friends, especially the ones who look at contracts, is that every so often, I am texted a blurry, zoomed-in photo of the phrase FORCE MAJEURE

“Force majeure” is never said aloud in Force Majeure; it is not that type of movie. It is a French term, a legal term. It refers to unexpected circumstances—big ones, strange ones—that can get in the way of the fulfillment of a contract. It translates literally to major strength or superior strength. Only the strongest, most unanticipated event could breach something as noble as a written contract. That’s force majeure, and that’s Force Majeure

In late 2014, when being an adult woman who has to do coursework on purpose was just a twinkle in my eye, I walked into a movie theater at 9 in the morning to watch Force Majeure at a film festival in Belgium. I was running on a combination of jetleg and a strong Americano. The movie’s subtitles were in French only, and mon français est bon mais pas super. Still. I sat enrapt, dumbfounded and aghast. When I left the theater, it wasn’t even noon yet, but the world felt new and quiet. There was no wind.

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Force Majeure (2014) | TriArt Film

The vacation is going well, or it has the facade of a vacation going well. Everyone is skiing. The slopes are perfect. The mountains silent. The family naps together in their long underwear on the paradise of a king-sized bed. As Tomas’ phone vibrates, he moves his hand not to the iPhone on his right, but to Ebba’s leg on his left. His fingers stroke her thigh. He promises not to pick up the call. Later, when Ebba gets up to brush her teeth, Tomas instinctively picks up his phone, flipping it in his hand so it’s the right side up. 

“Are you checking your phone?” she asks from the other room.

“I’m not, actually,” he promises, staring right at it.

When Ebba returns, catching him in the act, they laugh. These casual deceptions are part and parcel of their relationship, of any relationship. By “casual deceptions,” I don’t mean saying you’re not on your phone when you’re on your phone; I mean the laughter. The easy shrugging off. We know from the early minutes of the film how short a fuse both Tomas and Ebba have for each other. To her friend in the hotel, Ebba explains, “We’re here because Tomas has been working so much. So now he has five days to focus on his family.”

“Good to know,” Tomas agrees, laughing only a little. Here, too, the laughter is deception. A horrible play-acting of spousal goodwill. 

But really—and here I’m being serious—the vacation is going well—or am I? The family brushes up all together, their electric toothbrushes humming along in their mouths, and then there’s the avalanche.

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For a long time I bristled about the idea of telling anyone about the avalanche in Force Majeure, which is funny (actually funny, not like, “I’m pretending everything is okay to salvage my relationship with my wife and children” funny) because it’s literally on the poster. And yet I felt the need to be protective of the story, as if I were an acclaimed auteur warning critics at a major film festival not to spoil my movie.

What happens, obviously, is an avalanche. A real one, as in snow quickly moving downhill. Ebba and Tomas and their kids are eating outside at one of the lodge’s outdoor restaurants, and they watch, first in awe and then in terror, as it gets closer. When the moment strikes, when Ebba and Tomas are forced to act, she leaps on top of the children and Tomas grabs his gloves and iPhone and runs away. There’s screaming and then there’s silence. I wouldn’t call it a mirage, because it’s not, but it’s an illusion. The snow never got that close to them. They were safe the whole time, minus their meals, now lightly dusted with powder. Tomas returns to the table, and he is laughing. 

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Force Majeure (2014) | TriArt Film

At some point, Force Majeure became a bit—an extended joke, a motif—in my life. I’m under no illusion this makes me special; in fact, it’s tough to think of anything more early-to-mid 20s than forming a whole fraction of your personality around a movie with subtitles. When I returned home from Belgium, I had to wait an excruciating few weeks before it opened at the Music Box back in Chicago, and once it finally did, I dragged every person I’d ever met who could stand being in a room with me along to see it. To my delight, it hit harder the second time, stung sharper. The English subtitles helped, I’m sure. That Force Majeure was a good enough—no, great enough—movie to overcome my festival fever (to be in a new place with new people seeing movies for free at 9 in the morning could cloud any 23-year-old’s judgment) was a blessing and confirmation of my own taste. If I sound unbearable, you’re right, but there are worse mountains to die on.

For my 25th birthday, my roommate got me a gigantic Force Majeure poster that now hangs over my desk. It’s been a boon and a curse, romantically speaking. At parties, sometimes a stranger will cut through the crowd and corner me. “You’re the Force Majeure girl, right?” (I promise this has happened more than once.) Friends who missed its theatrical run would send me poor quality photos of their TVs as they streamed it at home. 

But I’m avoiding the question I haven’t even asked. That’s how evasive I’m being. Why did this happen? Why did I take so fully to it? No doubt there are a lot of incredible movies from this decade, several of which I’ve seen more times than Force Majeure and one with which I happen to share most of my name. The reason, I think, it struck such a nerve in late 2014 is that it coalesced almost perfectly with a personal journey of queer self-discovery. I was turning fully and aggressively on men at that time in my life. I was in the midst of a cursed on-again/off-again non-relationship (colloquial term) with a man who I believed to be my soulmate. I say that not in an optimistic way. I thought at the time I could do no better than someone who made me feel horrible about myself until, of course, I started to date women. I was consumed with a regressive bout of heteropessism, and I was able to use Force Majeure to back up all of my staunchest beliefs about The Way Things Are™. It was easy to carry this opinion through the world, and it was reinforced constantly by pop culture at the time. This was the peak of the Male Tears mug. I watched the predominantly straight people I’d attended high school with get married in droves to their hometown sweethearts, all the while blooming with the smug satisfaction they wouldn’t get what they wanted. Sure, get married at 24. Sure, put a down payment on a 3-bedroom in the northwest suburbs. But at the end of the day, your husband will leave you on the side of a mountain when he doesn’t know what else to do.

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The avalanche changes everything. At dinner that night, with a fellow adult couple, Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg) and her unnamed and likely temporary American beau (Brady Corbet), Tomas and Ebba recount the events of the morning. The story is punctuated with laughter. First, Ebba can’t stop laughing at the English word “avalanche.” Then, as she stares at Tomas as he recounts the story, waiting for the moment in which he admits to his own cowardice that never comes, she announces, “He got so scared that he ran away from the table.” It lands like a punchline, like an anvil on a cartoon character. Charlotte and her date laugh, and Tomas, too, chuckles at the absurdity. 

When I rewatched the film to write this essay, a longtime friend also in the throes of a different and far more rigorous graduate program sat beside me on the couch working on her adult homework. She paused her annotating, shutting her textbooks, through the length of this scene, and asked me multiple times why Ebba was not getting angry. Why she wasn’t raising her voice and shouting. Östlund knows that the best comedy often does not derive from the most heightened emotions, but rather the attempt to hold those emotions in. Ebba laughs because she cannot scream; I have to imagine it’s all she wants to do. 

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There’s something to be said about the way in which technology functions in Force Majeure without drifting too far into “we’re all on our phones too much.” It speaks volumes that what Tomas grabs from the table is his phone. To his credit, I probably would too. The children, too, in an attempt to escape the dissolution of their parents’ relationship, plant themselves in front of their iPad, their plaintive faces aglow with blue-white light. When the conversation turns against Tomas, he retreats to the bedroom, watching, wordlessly, as Harry plays a cartoon game on the same device. OH, AND THE DRONE. What kind of family brings a drone on vacation, let alone owns a drone in the first place? 

What happens to Ebba and Tomas in the aftermath of the avalanche is a total breakdown of communication. The rulebook has been thrown out. Yet another recapping of events after a pizza dinner with their friends Mats (Kristofer Hivju—I will love you gently the whole length of my life) and his much younger girlfriend, Fanny (Fanni Metelius) serves no greater purpose. They are all talking; no one is listening. How can they be expected to? The thing that happened to them also didn’t happen. Through tears, Ebba explains: “There I am, clutching my kids, and suddenly the sky is blue again! Our lunch is still on the table…People start coming back and realize that there was no fucking avalanche.”

“I didn’t realize you saw it like that,” Tomas says, of his own actions. Note that he says it, not me. “You are entitled to your own point of view,” he generously grants his wife. It’s uncanny to watch the non-dialogue of modern arguments play out some five years before language online, and maybe in general, would dissolve as we know it. 

But the phone is the living record. It is the sole evidence Ebba has of Tomas’ fear, of the avalanche that wasn’t an avalanche. And it is not Ebba who Tomas comes to believe, but the phone, what his own video of the event tells him about himself. 

Force Majeure (2014) | TriArt Film

I, too, have become easily sedated by the tap-tap-tap and endless scroll of my phone. Who fucking hasn’t? But it’s not just the reliance on having something in my hand that will show me the world; it’s having something in my hand I’m convinced will show me some type of truth that no one is telling me. I’m more inclined to trust an image––a composite––than a sentence. The composite is a lie: the family nap, the long underwear, the mountainside portraits. 

“The enemy is that image we have of heroes,” Mats explains. Not to let men off the hook (at least not 100%), but I think he’s onto something there. It’s not necessarily that men are trash, it’s that the marital unit is trash. The family unit is trash. The expectation is trash. Why not throw it out and buy a new one. How hard is it to just be something else for once? For over a month, the bottom of my coffee pot has been cracked. Every morning it leaks coffee onto the floor, and I pretend it isn’t happening. This does not make my life better. For a while it made my life different, and now it makes my life the same. Am I calling myself the image of the hero? The coffee pot? Something is broken; it needs to be fixed. When I ask, rarely flippantly, if men are all right, what I want to know, earnestly, is if men are all right.

In Force Majeure, the genders are predisposed to side with each other: Fanny pets Ebba’s shoulder, and Mats forms a cobbled defense of his friend at every turn. But the avalanche is a sickness to which feigned support is no cure, and both couples stay up all night.

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Okay, so back to the drawing board: what’s the deal with me and this movie? At this point, the narrative feels out of my hands, taken over by those closest to me. When I date someone new, inevitably one of my friends will smugly ask if I’ve shown them Force Majeure yet, as if it’s a profound test of character. I shy away from it, and even when I recommend the movie to unsuspecting pals, I tell them to think carefully about who they watch it with.

What am I afraid of? What are they afraid of? It’s not like I’m recommending The Ring. The worst that can happen is that people watch the movie and then they talk about it, the contagiousness of the conversation reaching out from the screen and into real life. As Mats and Fanny stay up all night bickering over the generational divide in heroism—she claims her friend, who lives at home with his parents, would likely be more inclined to act selflessly than Mats, who is divorced—I, too, don’t want to be saddled with the responsibility of cursing my peers with riveting conversation about expectations in heteronormative relationships. In any relationships! Nightmare!

Force Majeure (2014) | TriArt Film

In truth, I am probably mostly afraid of a dissolving of systems. It’s not that I think my friends will argue. It’s that I think they’ll continue to live their lives in silence. It’s that a new partner of mine will blink twice and say, “Interesting movie.” The impulse to brush it all away, to commit to the perspective that nothing is happening, will take over, and the conversation will end. In Force Majeure, everything breaks down. Tomas and Mats go off for a solo day of skiing, almost entirely incapable of speaking to one another. (Fellas, I’m begging you, next decade? Please start vibe checking.) Ebba, in her loneliness, lets Vera and Harry eat ice cream for breakfast. 

If the avalanche was real but also didn’t happen, what the fuck are you supposed to do? 

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Tomas fake-cries before he really cries. Again: we trust a composite, an image, a summary of emotions. “You’re just pretending. You’re not crying for real,” Ebba laughs. She’s always laughing now. What was horrible and funny has become self-parody. 

“I get that you’re disappointed in the person that materialized,” Tomas says, a non-apology if I ever heard one. Is it that he materialized into a person he didn’t know, or is it that the original image dissolved? Regardless. His tantrum spirals out of control. My advice to you is to never demand an apology, because apologies are more about the person giving them than the person receiving them. He disassociates, separates himself from the man who fled and the man he is. “I’m a victim too! I’m a victim of my own instincts!” He wails in the exposed hallway of their hotel, a performance if I ever saw one (from both Tomas, and Kuhnke, who is really so fucking good). 

The scene is the hallmark of the film. A man who would rather sob in public than truly reckon with his own actions. (Heard of it?) The gesture is masculine, sort of, but as the decade comes to a close and gender becomes more of a myth, I see myself much more in the pathetic, self-delusion of a man in his underwear sobbing when his image of himself flutters away in the alpine air. The first time I saw it, I laughed. I couldn’t stop laughing. But now I can barely get through it, and this is coming from someone who has seen this movie double-digit times. Ebba forces Tomas back into the room, and there Vera and Harry emerge in fear. Here we see the reverse of the avalanche—the children choose to protect only one of their parents—collapsing on top of him in a pile of tears.

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There was a moment this past summer where the avalanche clip from Force Majeure became a meme. People tweeted it out with various captions, and then other people had to specify that it was from a movie. It was fake, it was staged. Did you think Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver got divorced for real, too? I watched a scene I knew all too well orbit around me, its meaning shifting and changing with every pull-and-refresh of my timeline. I felt a petulant possessiveness. To be honest, I usually feel a petulant possessiveness about something. It was impossible not to feel somewhat slighted, but also, what the fuck was wrong with me? I didn’t write and direct Force Majeure. Obviously. Obviously! But the image I had of it diverged with the image of it that existed. It was tough not to feel a little insane—the avalanche was there, and then it wasn’t—but I think Östlund would have found a perverse joy in it, if there’s ever any perverse joy in being logged on anymore.

The end of the film is a cipher. On the bus down the mountain at the end of the vacation, one uneasy bend on a hairpin turn sends everyone into a panic. Here, Tomas acts. He acts not for the sake of heroism or selflessness, but to be seen acting. Mats does the same. The image we have of heroes, etc. They jump to their feet, guiding a line of tourists off the bus and onto the highway. They help the bus driver make the turn, and then he’s gone. Another disaster—or not?—avoided—or not? How else do you get down a mountain? You walk, one foot in front of the other. 

I’m still trying to figure out what the disaster was. Is. Let’s cross off the avalanche. The avalanche is a misdirect. Let’s cross off vacation. The vacation is just the setting. Let’s cross off heterosexual relationships. Too easy. Let’s cross off patriarchal expectations. I’m not saying, like, those are good. Please don’t think I’m ending the decade on the side of patriarchal expectations. The disaster is more complicated. It’s the sum of the parts multiplied by one billion then divided into an even bigger number so that it’s so small you can barely see it. (Can you tell I haven’t taken a math class this decade?) The disaster is personal. It is small, kind of. Force Majeure hurts not because it shows us a composite dissolving, but because it shows us the specific, relentless disappointment of each other. This is how it could be. This is what could happen. It is not that Tomas isn’t what Ebba expected; it’s that he’s never not been the person he is the whole time. They go on vacation to escape their lives only to encounter what is, more or less, their lives. 

This decade has been about expectations, the complete and utter dissolution of them, and aftermaths, the harried panic that follows. The worst thing that happens is that 10 years pass and I am still myself. I do not think of myself as horrible, or at least not that horrible, but I am very much what I am. I started the decade in school; I’m ending the decade in school. In the interim I have been all sorts of things—someone who jogs, someone who scoops ice cream, a partner to women and men—unfortunately all of them me. I do not deny myself brief spurts of change throughout: an ever-reforming oversharer, an ex-smoker, someone who has approximately 800 different hairstyles. But as time passes, as perfunctory reunions occur, it’s hard to hear something like, “You haven’t changed a bit!” and not consider it a slap in the face (or a snowball in the eyes—okay, I’ll stop). Don’t you know the mountain I’ve walked down, I want to tell them. Here I am at the bottom of it, wondering if I was better off up top.