In his political tract Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes expounded a pessimistic theory about human life in the state of nature, classifying it as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It’s only once people submit to the authority of a government, Hobbes argues, that they can stop worrying solely about self-preservation. That leaves open, of course, whether a primal and selfish instinct for survival remains forever alive beneath our civilized behavior. Such is the running question in Ruben Östlund’s engrossing Force Majeure.
The film follows a Swedish family—Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children, Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren)—on vacation at a ski resort in the French Alps. On the second day of their trip, while the four are eating lunch at an outdoor café with a stunning view of the mountains, they witness a controlled avalanche. The snow cascades down the slopes, everyone pulls out their cell phones, but as the avalanche shows no sign of slowing down, panic ensues. Ebba, hunched over her kids, calls for Tomas, but he has fled the scene. A cloud of white snow engulfs the restaurant and the screen. Holding the shot, Östlund lets us watch as the white cloud dissipates, revealing itself only as a harmless foggy residue that arose from the avalanche below.
Later, Tomas’s friend, Mats (Kristofer Hivju), tries to justify Tomas’s selfish escape as a moment of instinctive self-preservation: “In survival mode, he might not be able to live up to his values,” Mats explains. Tomas, meanwhile, denies any wrongdoing, refusing to admit he ran away from the table at all. Kuhnke plays Tomas with rigorous control, offering a fascinating portrayal of man engulfed by a sense of shame that he desperately tries to keep contained beneath a stubborn refusal to accept reality.
Ebba, dismayed by Tomas’s reaction and his subsequent lies about it, becomes a woman distraught by the rescindment of what she sees as a basic social responsibility. “I can’t identify with anyone who would trample on their own kids to survive,” she says at one point, though her discomfort at broken social norms is even broader than that. In another scene, she gets increasingly uncomfortable by her friend’s choice to live in an open relationship with her husband even after having two kids together.
Östlund masterfully manages the marital tensions that drive Force Majeure’s plot forward while imbuing the scenario with these carefully layered philosophical reflections. He tells us as much visually as through the dialogue. The static and uncut shot of the avalanche lets Tomas’s dash stand out within the larger panic of the situation without grossly accentuating it. Throughout the film, Östlund contrasts wide-angle, magisterial outdoor shots of Tomas and his family skiing—free, as it were, in the grand isolation of nature—with tightly framed shots of the family together inside the hotel, cramped against each other and breaking through the margins of the frame.
There’s hardly a moment when Östlund’s command of tone and pacing, his clarity of expression, isn’t on display, making the film thrilling, intellectual, and beautiful at once. With time, Force Majeure digs ever deeper into the frayed psyches of its characters, and if the finale doesn’t leave us mired in a confused battle of humans against their worst instincts, it certainly leaves us wrangling with any illusion that civilized behavior is a natural instinct.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 4—14.