Force Majeure

Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy and former Oscars host, was booked to be on one of the planes that the terrorists highjacked on 9/11 but he missed his flight because of a miscommunication about what time he was supposed to be at the airport. You might think that he would place some grand cosmic significance on this fact, but MacFarlane actually undersells it, saying that he only thinks of that flight as another one of the dozens of flights he's missed over the course of his life. That attitude might initially seem a bit superficial, but ultimately it makes a lot of of sense. After all, how much time can you really spend looking at your life through the prism of Oh my God, I should be dead? The human mind isn't built to spend that much time focusing on the concrete reality of our own mortality.

I was thinking about MacFarlane's experience during Force Majeure's first act, because it explores how two parents react to a "near death" experience they have while they are on vacation. I put "near death" in quotes because neither of them was actually in danger, they just thought they were - they were having lunch at an open air restaurant at a ski resort when a controlled avalanche began coming down the mountain. For a second it looked like the snow was actually out of control and they were going to get buried alive, but it quickly settled down and they were completely safe. The problem was that in the split second they were panicking Tomas, the father, tried to run off by himself while his wife Ebba stayed behind to try to protect their children. At first they try to go back to normal, but eventually the disparity of their initial reactions begins to deeply trouble Ebba.

Ebba spends much of the middle of the movie castigating Tomas for his cowardice and for his selfishness, and I was sympathetic to her panic to a large degree - but I wasn't wholly on her page. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had a saying: "hard cases makes bad laws" - meaning that it isn't a good idea to over-generalize based on extreme examples because that ends up skewing the results for more typical cases. Tomas might have reacted badly in that one split second, but that has to be weighed against all the time and energy he's spent over the years trying to be a good father. Unfortunately for Tomas, Ebba is so emotionally shaken up in the days after the incident that she's spoiling for a fight and she isn't going to drop her objections lightly.

However, as the movie progresses it becomes clear that Tomas might not be the good father that he initially appears to be, and that Ebba might be using this specific incident as a way of expressing her general frustration at the fact that Tomas isn't as emotionally present with his family as he should be. This second phase of their argument was a lot more compelling to me, because it turns a he-said she-said argument into a case that is legitimately ambiguous. If the avalanche incident really is an isolated example then Ebba is overreacting; if it's part of a larger trend then it's straw that broke the camels back and her anger is a lot more rational. Force Majeure never really gives you a sense that it favors either interpretation - it lays the facts on the table and lets the viewers make of them them what they will.

Personally, I came to see the chess game between Tomas and Ebba to be less about them specifically and more about the broader philosophical question "are we really the people we think we are?" Perhaps Ebba is right and Tomas' gut instinct does reflect who he is at heart; perhaps Tomas is right and it was nothing but a split second fluke that she's overemphasizing; my guess is that regardless of the real answer it would probably be better if they put their egos aside for a second and compromised on an answer that was somewhere in the middle. But I suspect that if you asked ten different people what his instant reaction says about him you might get ten different answers, because the whole thing ultimately depends on what you think our actions say about our intentions and that's a thorny question indeed.

I'm glad that Force Majeure went beyond a mere depiction of one couple's argument into a Rashomon style investigation of the ways in which we each filter our realities through our own prejudices. At first, when their fight seemed straight forward, I kept thinking: Seth MacFarlane is right - you have to decide that such serious incidents are just flukes because otherwise you'll go mad, and I kept judging Ebba for pushing her marriage towards from stability towards insanity. However, the more that Force Majeure showed how unstable her marriage really was, the less I thought of Seth MacFarlane. (Which is good, because if your drama has me thinking that Seth MacFarlane is right about anything then it legitimately took a wrong turn somewhere.) Because, yes, we do have to put our own mortality behind us if we're going to function in the world - it's too hard to live a good life if you're always thinking of your own death. But Tomas and Ebba are not just grappling with their own mortality, they are also grappling with their own morality, and that's a very different beast altogether - one that none of us can afford to ignore, and which cannot be dealt with in any simple manner. Fortunately, Force Majeure is less simple than it might initially appear. It might not be the most exciting movie I've ever seen about an avalanche, but it's definitely the one that digs the deepest.

Winner: Me

Force Majeure on IMDB