What it means to have a good character? And how can we tell that someone has it? The Swedish film Force Majeure (2014) is bluntly unambiguous on both accounts. A character and ethics are inner and arguably deepest part of our selves. Unpredictable events well may come down on us with ferocity and mercilessness that remind of a divine act. Yet how we stand up to them is far from random. And it is this pattern to our response that we know as character.
This is the main theme of Ruben Östland’s Force Majeure, which I recently came across thanks to The Guardian’s great note on this film (along with others, which are too worth checking out). Its start is quite uneventful. The arrival of a Swedish family to a mountain resort in the French Alps gives few clues of an existentialist spectacle that is to ensue. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), a businessman hooked to his smartphone, his charming wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two young kids Vera and Harry (Vincent and Clara Wettergren) set off for a skiing day on the slopes. But soon, while they lunch on a restaurant’s terrace, a roaring avalanche breaks the family idyll. As it rushes down the near slope, Ebba hesitates no moment to shield the children – whereas Tomas snatches his mobile and runs to safety.
No one’s hurt and there’s no Hollywoodesque rescue operation. The two kids first notice what must have felt like abandonment by their father in a critical moment. Ebba obviously shares these feelings too, but it takes her some more time to confront Tomas’s cowardice. In any case, a few dramatic seconds were enough for all to change perceptions of their relationship. With Ebba we’re led to realise that for Tomas his family comes only second after himself and his iPhone.
As all this family drama unfolds, its effect becomes even stronger thanks to the work of the camera. It often lingers afar to make the viewer concentrate on the emotions and dialogue, while the volume of some scenes is used to further unnerve the audience. Also the play with music is spectacular – with bursts of Vivaldi punctuating each day, which serves to underline the family’s daily tooth-brushing routine.
Tomas first denies any responsibility when challenged. In fact, he tells Ebba that he has a “different interpretation” than her on what happened – it wasn’t an escape. We can observe there’s something very contemporary about such reaction. It corresponds to one fundamental trait of postmodern society, which is a belief in perspectives. “I have my point of view, and you have your point of view,” and no one can (or should) really tell us which is better. The question is if something as tangible as leaving one’s family behind can be dismissed by making a claim to having a different view on it. And what such different view should look like exactly?
The truth is that very few people know how they’d respond in critical situations like these. In Europe such self-awareness may well be even more limited than elsewhere. Individualist values of postmodernity urge us to constantly reassure ourselves as well as others about our good qualities. The most important thing in the world, it’s said, is our own happiness. And no matter obvious flaws and limitations, criticism of individuals and social groups is shunned and automatically regarded as intolerant or discriminatory. No doubt tolerance is an important attribute, but does it entail we have to renounce on making judgements of good and bad and speaking our mind on them? But while we mutually reassure ourselves to be all great and fantastic, the world offers us less and less critical situations or challenges that put such purported qualities to test. Ours isn’t only a risk-averse society. Stress from often harsh economic conditions aside, Europe’s mostly free from wars and natural disasters that ravage other continents.
Inevitable question comes: would you or I have acted differently? Many films reassuringly separate action on the screen from the observing audience. But Force Majeure tends to break down that barrier. Other viewers will surely not escape what happened in my case: nagging need for introspection. Some mechanism in human psyché tends to regard one’s actions with a certain leniency, puts them higher up in cases where the same behaviour from others might not meet with such compassionate understanding. When added to the capacity of forgetting, a belief in one’s own moral aptitude can take its firm foothold.
To give an example let’s imagine the following situation. It’s the end of summer and a young man walks with a girl he very much loves in a forest park on the outskirts of one of those big European cities. For one reason or another, it’s her last day that she’s it to spend in that country, so his mind’s filled with the fleeting sensation of a moment that might never come back. As they talk and stroll down the pathway lined with oak trees and a still pond, a kid rushes past them, his parents nowhere in sight. A loud bark is heard. They realise that the big hound that was close by has no leash and its owner is likely to be incapable of restraining it. The man reacts to get the dog’s attention, so rather than at the unwary child it runs at them. He stands in front and holds out an arm, so the young woman is protected. But the dog rushes back to the weaker target – while at that moment the man hesitates as if unsure of the next step, she’s brave and instinctively reacts by running to snatch the child. Precious seconds well might have been wasted if the owner didn’t finally come and leash back her uncontrollable pet. Was it momentary fear that held back the young man or can we call it hesitation? In any case, the likelihood is that he is about to forget, unless works such as La Force Majeure are there to remind (and teach us) about that kind of experience.
The fact that Force Majeure can reveal truths is a sign that it isn’t just a regular film – but a piece of art. Because the function of art is to reveal truth. Östland ultimately seems to shy away from taking the film’s argument to its logical conclusion. As the film nears the end, the audience isn’t required to confront the question whether postmodernity’s “me first” is partially to blame. What positive values on individual behaviour does it promote – does it, and do we, ever refer to courage, magnanimity, not to say self-sacrifice for the well-being of others?
Östland also doesn’t give us much chance to think about demands on men and women in society. Is a man’s betrayal during such an overly “physical threat” as an avalanche more despicable than if it were Ebba who ran away? This is a question worthy of posing not only in the context of Swedish politics. It’s undoubtedly Ebba which is the strong character of the film, while Tomas repeatedly acts as a coward. As a father he abandons family, as a husband he isn’t able to admit guilt, and as a man he doesn’t act on his responsibility and instead completely breaks down.
Instead the film’s conclusion comes across as unconvincing and going in the opposite direction than the rest of the story. Notwithstanding the depth of insight into psychology and society that Östland provided, in his final message he extends conciliatory hand to appease broad audience. It’s there as if to assert that after all this was just a random fault of one individual – and not a character flaw or a sign of greater malaise of our society. This notwithstanding, this is a fascinating piece overall, which I can wholeheartedly recommend.
Now the brave man is as dauntless as man may be. Therefore, while he will fear even the things that are not beyond human strength, he will face them as he ought and as the rule directs, for honour’s sake; for this is the end of virtue.
-Aristotle, Nicomachaen Ethics