Hear: electric toothbrushes drone—cleaning teeth—barely enough to drown out underpinning fears.
See: loose clothing, bare skin—despite the frigid clime basic needs are met.
Taste: the fluoride paste, eager to be spit.
Brushing teeth is a motif in Force Majeure and it is easy to see why. First, the industrial hum evokes a subjective torment cemented in the cinema psyche by the horror genre. Second, the familiarity and comfort of the scene bring to light insulating technologies: heat, light, warm clothes, water. Needing nothing, the family nevertheless appears hollowed in a sense, isolated from one another as well as their surroundings. Third, each character sees his or herself reflected as both one and as a group. Identity is the main concern of this film, particularly the challenge of self-identification in the face of chaos (“force majeure”) and a pastiche of family scripts (patriarchy, feminism, etc.).
More on each of these considerations.
If you want to get to the lifts, you have to pass through this orange tunnel (i.e. the birth canal). Ready to go, you must wait—slowly, slowly you approach the light—anticipation grows along with trepidation. What if you fall? What if you get lost?
What if the day goes fine and there’s nothing to entertain you afterwards?
In Force Majeure the tunnel provides a pause for anxieties to rise. In one sequence in particular, the passing is cross-cut between two pairs, the parents and the children, accompanied by industrial creaks that make your skin begin to crawl. This and other breaks from the meticulous, locked-down, objective style of the piece reveal torment at the subjective level.
Despite the avalanche, imposing panoramic peaks, and sub-zero temperatures, the conflict in Force Majeure is internal; existential conflicts and relational dramas supersede any danger that the environment might pose. The film’s majesty rests on this transposition: the beautiful and dangerous landscape becomes a symbol of the threats to self-understanding and identity. There is deep unrest in this family.
Force Majeure is a brilliant film for its ability to tease out the ontological from the ontic, the existential from the mundane. Thus, brushing teeth becomes a weighty moment even when (or because) the character’s don’t expect it to be. The everyday is laced with meaning in proper art; here just after the lunch-time avalanche we find the children clinging to their iPads (not their parents), hoping for a sense of persistence to hide how deeply they have been shaken. In other words, the children are unable to process the fright they have had and try to bury it (a common use of technology I fear). This is a fleeting strategy and finally the boy Harry erupts with his true fear: that his parents are nearing a divorce.
While the family is “safe” within the lodge, its comforts do little to relieve their deeper anxieties. Technology, thus, aids survival but reveals itself, in the end, to be little more than “artifice.” The characters have no recourse in the face of string of “freak accidents,” partly because the accidents are more natural than their attempts to deny them.
Without artifice, what remains? This modern question is only answered by snowdrifts, blizzards, and avalanches; nature holds up a mirror in Force Majeure which the characters cannot ignore, nor capture. What is left of them?
In essence, Nothing. To combat this, the characters—like all of us—assert their influence through adopting scripts. For the husband, it is patriarchy: he is a father figure, a man of experience, a protector. This, however, is shaken as he instinctively runs away from his family to save himself as the avalanche approaches. He is affected so deeply that by the film’s end he is weeping uncontrollably, his children and wife laying on him—crying—a moment of real tenderness in a world of artifice BUT also a moment of crippled patriarchy. To survive, the husband must enact a rescue of the mother, emerging from the snow as a hero.
The wife, however, is dissatisfied with this script. She instead wants to assert herself as an individual: she heads off for a day of solo skiing and is amazed by a friend’s description of her open marriage. In a critical moment on the journey home, the wife uses her own authority to protect her family from a perceived danger. The husband goes along with her choice, once again compromising his belief in patriarchy. The result, ironically, is that the family never gets off the mountain before the film ends. Is this because feminism and patriarchy stalemate? Is it because the family can never bury their own vulnerabilities deep enough?
The image which ends the film is primitive, a village of the technologically equipped: all paralyzingly scared of danger, all paralyzingly scared of themselves. Meaning, however, is made on the routes least marked and maybe, together, in the wild, they will discover something more than artifice. Or maybe they will pick up the next bus.