What could have easily been a glib provocation turns out to be rigorous examination of masculinity in crisis in the hands of Swedish director Ruben Östlund. Force Majeure (2014) tests the limits (or troughs) of masculinity in the post-liberal age, charting the effects of decades of progression and asks: what is left of the hunter-gatherer in 2015? It’s a fascinating inverse of the traditional narrative of the unreconstructed male ego that is so common in cinema – pictures like John Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970) or Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971) – but what ultimately fascinates is that both strands end up in the same place – cowardice.
Where once the male-in-crisis character retreated to alcohol or illicit affairs – proxies of masculinity- he now simply retreats. Force Majeure is about the aftermath of a man briefly abandoning his family (but not his iPhone) in the face of an avalanche while holidaying in an Austrian ski resort. The avalanche turns out to be a false alarm, but the familial cataclysm it precipitates is very real. What follows is an excruciatingly exact post-mortem as the family struggle to make sense of the father’s actions. The parents – along with another couple – strive for the civilised approach, but are increasingly helpless to stem the uglier, more atavistic responses that keep threatening to boil over.
It’s clear that the sense of betrayal that the family feel at the father’s actions cannot be formulated in the language of middle class banalities; only the unruly, inarticulate fury of raw emotions comes close to the truth. This issue of class and its obstructive, platitudinous semiotics is central to Force Majeure. The notion that privilege severs men from their baser impulses is not new – nor is the intertwining of those elements – but what does feel novel is the context in which this familiar narrative plays out in the film. Thomas is a Volvo dad neutered by his lifestyle, and the picture is concerned with the differing perceptions of exactly what he lacks. He clearly thinks it’s some kind of animalism; he compensates for his actions by skiing with his friend and going on a bender. It’s a familiar representation of crisis. But the real answer is deeper – he lacks a sense of honour and selflessness that was inherent in the generation before him. In this sense, Östlund manages to avoid tacit support for conservatively demarcated gender roles, focusing instead on the psychological impact of progressive households and the men who are too emotionally immature to skilfully circumnavigate its dynamics. It’s a shame then that a fatal misstep occurs late in the third act which undoes much of the good work by undermining the general thematic thrust. It feels like a cheap trick that makes the viewer question the sincerity of what precedes it. It’s not enough to knock the film entirely off course, but it certainly stops it from scaling the heights.
Craig Williams | @CraigFilm