Force Majeure

Force Majeure


Howard Adelman

The setting is the stunning French or French-Swiss Alps. We know it is the French part of the Alps because the film begins with a French photographer in accented English taking pictures of the family posed in their beautiful ski clothes on the side of the mountain. We sense something wrong is this seemingly very happy and lovely successful Swedish family on a luxurious five-day ski vacation when the family members only move closer together for the pictures on the instructions of the photographer. They are not natural huggers.

The first day on the slopes is serenity and joy. They are a happy family. They brush their teeth together, each with his or her own electric toothbrush. Then, all four members collapse from their tiring day on the same king-sized bed in the upscale ski resort with its magnificent views. The main characters are Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two children, Vera and Harry played by real siblings. The approximately forty-year-old man with the big red beard, whom I thought was Toma’s brother, Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his twenty-year-old blond girlfriend, Fanni (Fanni Metelius), soon join them. This film is not just a psychodrama. Nor is it just a social drama. Force Majeure is a metaphysical drama in the guise of a film focused on the family.

For the viewer is left to decide what is the force majeure, the unanticipated event that is both unavoidable yet contingent. In contract law, unavoidable contingent events such as hurricanes and floods free a party from any personal responsibility, at least for the period of the crisis, because they are viewed as beyond anyone’s personal control. However, one’s response to such a contingency is seen not to be in the same category as an excuse — even if one is a bystander to a genocide or ethnic cleansing. We may not be responsible for what happens. However, we may be responsible for our response to what happens. An act of God does not exclude or excuse a party’s response to the incident, but only responsibility for the incident itself, which is seen as beyond the reasonable control of anyone. It is the response that is the trigger for the film. It is the response that reveals the real force majeure that is the subject of the movie. Did what happen excuse Tomas from the usual expectations of him in performing his obligations or did what occur reveal a fatal character flaw that explains his “failure”?

Posing for the initial photograph is just the initial scene that sets the viewer on edge. Explosions to trigger controlled avalanches go off in the background. The lifts creek and croak. The metal doors shut with an ominous sound. The machinery of play is not running smoothly and silently. Instead, the mechanisms of functionality sound weary and time-worn in spite of the gorgeous natural scenery and the idyllic portrait of a happy family at play.

Spoiler alert! Though I will not tell you precisely what happens to shatter this blissful bourgeois portrait, I say that disaster does not come from nature – that is an exercise in magical deception and distraction to frame the movie. Rather, it is the very small deeds and actions, the inadvertent words uttered, that propel the action forward. This is the real force majeure, not the feared avalanches, that drives these cold creatures into their own private worlds of despair, the children even more than the adults, but only because they are still able to articulate their fears.

This is a Swedish film. But the Swedes are stand-ins for contemporary families in modern societies – only more so. For Sweden is a humanitarian superpower with its civil society run by a coalition of management and labour. Seven parties in the Riksdag arrive at a consensus and then register that agreement in the legislature. On the surface, all seems both civil, peaceful and the epitome of order and good government. Sweden has taken the place of Canada as the country most hospitable to refugees. Sweden is the supreme example of the modern welfare state. It offers security and safety, but with a humane voice.

Sweden has mastered, seemingly, the art of a strong central state, the rule of law and the process of democracy even as it admits relatively large numbers whose familial and tribal allegiances are much stronger. In fact, for Swedes, tribalism has been ejected from the polity – except among the new immigrants. Only the sense of the family remains and that sense seems very fragile if the film portrait is at all representative. The strength of the family will be sorely tested on the slopes of the French Alps, a situation adumbrated by Ebba’s conversation with another married Swedish woman living in an open marriage and traveling to a resort on her own to dabble in sexual encounters with men she meets.

My daughter’s new book, which she sent off to the publisher today, begins by citing a humorist and satirist of the first order. “Oscar Wilde once wrote that ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.’ The truth Wilde alludes to is an alternative truth which the given identity of face and name cannot convey, a deeper truth that can only emerge through subterfuge. The guise uncovers a psychic terrain that not only unmasks others, who might say and do what they otherwise would not, but also reveals desires inchoate to the self.” There is no subterfuge in Force Majeure. There is no guise. The language in the movie is as honest a replication of ordinary human speech as I have ever seen in a movie.

The movie is not simply about an ordinary Swedish couple with two children going on a ski holiday to the Alps. It is about very minor deeds and words that create a tsunami because a man fails to know himself and “is least himself”. He cannot tell the truth as much as he may try. His inability – and, in the movie, it seems to be a male inability – to understand an alternative truth leads to the collapse of his identity. But the revelation does not come from a woman’s guise or subterfuge, but from his wife’s matching initial inability to stomach the truth when it is revealed. The inner tremendous energy forces the truth to the surface like a volcano. Once it has exploded, the only mode of recovery is, indeed, female guile. But the guile seems so transparent that suddenly the movie seems to lose both its credibility and its power. That was my initial reaction. Upon reflection I decided that this was deliberate.

Confronting the truth only leads to the implosion of an identity. The trick to overcome that implosion is so clumsy that the trickster even appears to be as weak as her husband. A serious movie suddenly turns into a comedy. Or does it? The foreignness of being an expert in the use of artifice and female wiles is made only too apparent. Yet it is the only way to evade the disastrous consequences that the contingent, the unforeseen, the hidden, has brought about. As for Tomas, he is a complete failure. His initial cries and later sobbing breakdown confuses the viewer about whether they are just products of Tomas’ (not the actor who plays him) bad acting or a real incapacity to honestly emote. Tomas neither knows how to pretend nor how to really feel and collapses into fetal helplessness.

For Tomas, who cannot even master frankness and openness, the discovery of this underworld of emotions and feelings is devastating, far more devastating that the controlled avalanche that sets everything in motion. For it is not really an avalanche – just the cloud of mist and snowflakes stirred up by the controlled avalanche and that is taken to be the real thing. In this movie, that is far more frightening than an Alfred Hitchcock film.

Swedes are now too secular. They ought to go back to reading the Bible. There is one allusion to this in an early scene where the wife’s friend introduces the couple to an American she has picked up as “very religious”. Swedes, by contrast, have lost their sense of religion, their sense of the mysterious forces at work in history in general and in daily domestic life. With their frankness, with their openness, with their straight forward conversation, they have become naïve to mystery and it catches them totally unaware.

Part of the reason is that there is a total lack of privacy. When the parents want to talk, they have to escape from their hotel room into the hall. All four – the parents and the two children – sleep in the same bed. There is no secret bed life. And, as I said above, current Swedish social conditioning has produced women in Sweden who are strong Vikings very capable of living independent lives from men, but the cost has been enormous. The men have been hollowed out – much more so than T.S. Eliot ever believed or observed. And the women now lack the guile to understand how the moral order can be re-established once it falls apart. Though the mother quickly learns, the actions are so clumsy and amateurish – resembling a cliché – that they come across as a truly phony artifice. We are not only left very unsure whether the transition from ignorance to knowledge will, in fact, be achieved. But we are left to suspect that once Humpty Dumpty has fallen, he cannot be reassembled.

For without a mastery of trickery, however amateurish and clumsy, as Oscar Wilde and the Torah both recognized, there is no opportunity for change. Therapy and a psychoanalyst will reinforce individualism, but not the solidity of the family, will facilitate a shift in consciousness but at enormous cost. For unlike the relativism of psychoanalysis, basic events are not, as the husband initially insists, subject to alternative interpretation. There is a hard core reality which, ironically, only artifice can overcome.

Of course, Swedes are merely used as the exemplars of modernity and its core problem, whether in dealing with international crises and conflicts or domestic ones that hit a family entirely from left field. The sense that the small domestic tale has such broad implications come in the soundtrack with its creeky wheels of the chair lifts and their staccato stop-and-go movements. There are explosions in the background and a drone, the husband’s latest play toy. The drone is suddenly released by Harry into the room to disrupt everything. While these sounds, especially the magisterial orchestra that suddenly starts playing against the magnificent and awesome beauty of the Alps, is not simply an imitation of Alfred Hitchcock, but a use of Hitchcock’s method of instilling suspense to tell a much larger and far more significant story.

After all, without a sense of the magnificence and grandeur of either nature or an omniscient being, humans are but tiny ants fighting to survive in an extremely threatening environment, and their struggle is all the more pitiful when they seem to have lost the sense of the mysteries of life which they have traded in for straight-forward functionalism.

My daughter-in-law is seven months pregnant. We watched the movie with her and my son. In that concealed womb, within that place of mystery in her pelvis where conception takes place and the infant fetus grows, within that place of ultimate mystery, that no ultrasound can picture but which we have become convinced that we have come close to unveiling, a male baby will emerge who will be taught in the modern mode that everything can be made apparent if we only apply the tools of our senses and our reason to the task. But the path of life is far more twisted, far more unpredictable and far more shocking. Directness and honesty will only help obscure it all unless we can access a route to manage the mysterious.

And, as the movie reveals, it is women as the natural protectors of children who will have to reveal that their powerful role as progenitors cannot be shared with their husbands. He is genetically not conditioned for the task. And no amount of preaching equality and equal burden sharing will detract from this fundamental truth. Failing to face this basic verity promises only disaster.

When we watch Force Majeure, we are only aware on the periphery that we are watching an apocalyptic film of the old order rather than a modern disaster flic. It is not honesty and straightforwardness, Swedish plain and direct speech, but the mastery of deception and artifice by the female partner that will enable a society to both interpret and overcome the deeply hidden dichotomies and paradoxes that permeate our lives. Ebba when she confronts her husband with the facts, insists initially that only if he would acknowledge them, all would be much better. She at least learns that she is on the wrong track. For if the contradictions are to be understood, it will not be accomplished by direct revelation of simple facts, but through the way the contradictions and dichotomies play themselves out. Women must learn that they are the key means to thrust the cunning of reason forward rather than the creeky mechanical functional tools that lead us heavenward towards the top of the Alps.

Hegel was absolutely correct. The dialectic of self-consciousness does not begin with play, does not begin with repetition of the joys of a child playing in or sliding on the snow, however elevated and sophisticated that activity can become, but in the dialectic of desire and life, of sex and survival, in the desire to be recognized by the other and the need to protect one’s children and progeny. Out of that contest for recognition emerges revelation. If a woman still holds the illusionary expectation of her husband as a hero, if she fails to recognize that she is the master of the situation, of her family history and its future, and of the need to master the art of artifice to ensure that future, then disaster will not have to wait for a tsunami or an avalanche, but the smallest deed in life will explode that illusion for what it is. Women have to know that the divine will is only forwarded by them. They will have to go beyond feminism, beyond crude egalitarianism, beyond truth as simply a by-product of functionalism, to truly become the key for our salvation and security. The cunning of reason transforms and raises us up. If a woman does not learn that lesson, then disaster awaits and the slightest misplaced deed or word can trigger an avalanche.

If one does not absorb that basic truth, then even a man as erudite and learned as Fukuyama (, will miss the basic pattern of history when he envisions the institutions of a central state, the rule of law and the democratic process – in that order — as the key for securing the future. He will have failed to understand history. For unless the family, unless the tribe is also preserved, transformed and raised up into this new world, then those mysteries will return to haunt and destroy us when we are most absent-minded.