In Force Majeure, male cowardice is a force of nature
In the central moment of Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure (2014), a family vacationing in the Alps witnesses an avalanche. The parents’ very different responses to the near disaster push their relationship to its breaking point. Ostlund’s film is about evolving gender roles and their impact on marriage. The movie brings up a very common struggle: Humanity versus nature—a theme you see frequently in the movies. In this context, nature isn’t just external, but what lies inside. What makes people behave the way they do? To bring out these themes, Ostlund contrasts sweeping vistas with the human mechanisms populating the ski resort. Noisy machines climb up the mountain to prepare it for skiers; these are paralleled with other human mechanisms, like the mechanical toothbrushes the family uses to brush their teeth. But Ostlund also uses photography and digital video to bring out the question of self-presentation and reality.
Technology and the measurement of reality
Force Majeure opens as a photographer stops the family to pose idyllically on the mountain side. They are posing happily, from tallest to smallest. They are beautiful, and perfect in a sitcom way—white, attractive, made of a husband, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) one boy, and one girl. Perfectly balanced. We don’t know them yet, but they look like a nice family. However, we quickly see that in these opening photographs, the family members are performing the best versions of themselves.
Dining at the foot of the Alps, the family witnesses an avalanche. At first, they are in awe of the event, a fast-moving cascade of snow that quickly dwarfs them with its immense size. The sequence is shot in a long take, and the camera remains static to emphasize the speed with which the snow barrels forward. What begins as a distant spectacle quickly reaches the foreground of the shot. When it comes too close for comfort, the father, Tomas, breaks and runs, leaving his wife and children behind. Ebba’s impulse is to protect the kids, but Tomas bolts. He sheepishly returns, but his disappearance does not go unnoticed.
When Ebba finally confronts him, he tells her he simply doesn’t agree with her version of what happened. Luckily, she has evidence to back up her side of the story. Tomas recorded the incident using his phone. When she requests that they watch it, her version of events holds up. Be he still stands by his story. Sure, it may appear as though he ran, he says, but that’s not what happened.
The cell phone video contrasts the family photos that started the film. Both the photos and video are representations of a family, but one comes a lot closer to portraying the rupture at its heart. The video shows an unmediated view of a man in a moment of weakness. The portrait shows him playing the role of father. But such evidence is also fruitless. Neither one can tell us what we really want to know: why did Tomas run and why the hell won’t he admit it?
Ostlund could be pointing out that men are cowardly, and women are strong in the face of danger because they are more connected to their families. This explanation is later suggested by friends who are forced to witness the animosity between the couple during a dinner party. The criticism isn’t being launched at men, but how the family has, historically, functioned. Women are expected to raise their families and are more connected to their children. That’s why Ebba’s instinct was to stay, while Tomas’s was to take care of himself. It isn’t necessarily an issue of human nature, but expectations.
Men behaving badly
In its central plot, Force Majeure falls in line with several other recent films in which, when confronted by imminent disaster, men become cowards—running from their families and wives or even committing suicide to escape the inevitable.
We think of men as inherently protective, at least, that they should lay down their lives (women and children first!). But in the end, that’s just an idea that has been handed down to us through the movies and other media. Several other recent films attempt to pick apart this narrative, too.
In the final chapter of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), the titular planet is about to collide with our own. Rather than a grandscale epic along the lines of Deep Impact, we only witness the insular interactions of a single family. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and John (Kiefer Sutherland) are living in relative happiness until Melancholia appears in the sky. When John realizes what’s about to happen, he disappears. He is later found dead, having poisoned himself to escape the pain his wife and child will experience. The worst part is that he has finished off the pills Claire planned to feed her son to save him from the unholy terror of witnessing the end of the world. When we watch it, we can’t imagine an act more cowardly. The scene has always haunted me. John is curled and pale, a small pool of vomit collected by his mouth. It’s a fitting image for his ultimate weakness.
In the same year, The Loneliest Planet (dir. Julia Locktev) came out, a movie that was little seen, but made a huge impact on me when I saw it at a screening at Facets in Chicago. It’s a stark film, featuring Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg as Alex and Nica, two newlyweds hiking in the Caucascus mountains. In the early scenes, the couple is very happy; they take the above selfie. The photograph shows their perception of themselves as a couple: deeply infatuated and set to embark on the rest of their lives together. But it doesn’t last. In a moment of miscommunication, a stranger pulls a gun on the couple. Alex’s first instinct is to push Nica in front of him. He then realizes his mistake and, very awkwardly, moves forward to protect her. As with Force Majeure, the action causes a rift to grow between them.
In addition to throwing men in the face of danger, these films all take place in environments where natural or cosmic imagery overwhelm the visuals. Force Majeure takes place in the Alps. In The Loneliest Planet, the humans are frequently dwarfed by the harsh mountain landscape, and In Melancholia, an act of nature all but obliterates life on this planet. All in all, the message seems fairly straightforward: Natural impulses (instincts) are overwhelming. When it comes time for men to act like men, they fail to pass muster.
Gender and mountains
Force Majeure, The Loneliest Planet, and Melancholia all make a statement about masculinity. It’s not that men are cowards, but they aren’t inherently strong, either. Male cowardice is a trait that’s shunned in Hollywood and beyond; we consider it abhorrent. But it’s also human nature. However, it’s rarely examined in women. It just doesn’t seem to be an expectation of us. Part of me wonders how these movies would be different if the tables were turned. What if Ebba had run instead? Shouldn’t women be allowed to be cowards too? Let’s face it; sometimes we are.
Cowardice is as much a part of human nature as choice—the ability to consciously override what our bodies are telling us to do and do the right thing instead. That’s why Force Majeure’s use of mechanical imagery is so powerful. It highlights the two parts of human behavior that are in a constant tug of war. How much of our programming is social and how much just plain biology? The mountain in Ostlund’s film is host to an ecosystem of machines that tame it for recreational use, but the same mountain can unleash an uncontrollable and potentially lethal torrent of snow. This suggests that nature may never truly be tamed by our social impulses.
Even in a world with digital evidence to spare, there are still mysteries to unravel. These scenarios fascinate because the battle between instinct and intention will never stop raging within us, no matter how evolved we become. Moreover, as the definitions of masculinity and femininity shift, nature looms ominously in the background, a fearful, intimidating force that will never be sated. The question remains, on the deepest level, how different are men and women really? For many, this question is still terrifying—the scream in the dark that sets the avalanche tumbling. We may never truly know the answer. But films like this one give us food for thought.