‘Force Majeure’ and the Swedish Family Vacation From Hell

The must-see ‘Force Majeure,’ which won the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, follows a family of four on a disastrous skiing trip in the French Alps.

Magnolia Pictures

For those who’ve been on family vacation before, my condolences. You know the potential dangers hiding behind each corner. For kids, it may be the inordinate amount of pictures your mom and dad want you to take at “scenic” destinations, or that friendship they force on you with the weird kid in the room next door (“I met his folks the other day. He’s just looking for someone to play with!”). Parents aren’t spared embarrassment either. Your children begin to act up and scream or maybe your significant other gets pissed at how you handle a particular situation. Either way, the trip often devolves into one long babysitting nightmare.

If any or all of the above scenarios sound familiar, you will certainly recognize the cringeworthy events that take place for one Swedish family in Force Majeure, the newest film from director Ruben Ostlund. The movie, in limited release this weekend, focuses on a vacationing group of four—Ebba, the mom; Tomas, the dad; and children Harry and Vera—as they travel to the French Alps for some skiing and R&R. But the illusions of peace and tranquility soon crumble around them like a patch of freshly laid snow.

The downfall arrives at the beginning of their trip, when an avalanche speeds down the mountain as the family is enjoying a midday lunch outside. While Ebba shields the children, Tomas takes off like a screaming toddler (thankfully, the impending disaster stops right at the foot of the building). This sets off a series of tempestuous events, with the couple spending the rest of the film arguing in front of everyone. “We’re on a holiday, we shouldn’t be acting like this!” Ebba begs Tomas.

There’s nothing worse than having your feuds play out for all to see, particularly on vacation, where you’re supposed to keep up some semblance of restfulness and picture-perfect images. But the only place for this couple to go is out in the hallway, away from the children, who are still able to hear their parents quarrel through the walls. “Are you getting divorced?” the young Harry asks his dad a day later, after Ebba has decided to go skiing on her own. For Tomas, the best way to handle the situation is by mumbling a few words, shepherding the kid into the ski lift, and then taking off down the mountain. It’s hard to have a conversation about life and family when you’re slaloming along a trail with a giant helmet and goggles on.

While the story details a vacation-gone-wrong, Force Majeure is mainly about one man’s midlife crisis and how his wife and kids react to it. Overall, the film moves along with the pace of a worsening snowstorm. Things seem fine at the outset, as they always do—the children are fun and adorable, the husband and wife happy and carefree. But it’s soon clear Tomas and Ebba have been having marriage problems even before their trip to France. At one point, they drag in Tomas’s friend, Mats (Kristofer Hivju from Game of Thrones) and his young girlfriend, for an impromptu counseling session regarding the avalanche sequence. The discussion leads Mats’s companion to pick a fight with him over whether he would protect her in an avalanche, this after he attempts to rationalize what Tomas did. “When you’re afraid you’re going to die…you don’t necessarily react like a hero,” he says.

The film often floats back and forth between these moments of satire and sadness. It’s a bit painful watching a grown man break down in front of his children. However, shots of the entire family sleeping in the same bed wearing matching pajamas, or the time where Tomas finds himself standing belly deep in a snow drift screaming at the top of his lungs make the journey well-worth watching.

The trips I took as a kid were thankfully never like this—though that’s not to say they were without their awkwardness. Watching this film, it’s nice to know that the terrible family vacation is not just a product of American culture. That might sound like an obvious observation, but my parents, sister, and I never ventured outside the States, so we were rarely afforded the opportunity to see, say, a Swedish couple self-destruct at a beautiful resort in the mountains.

Like the film, whenever I spot this in real life, I am not sure whether to laugh or just feel sad, though perhaps a bit more of the latter. Those on terrible vacations often look like they’ve gone through hell; they have dark circles under their eyes and somber looks on their faces. The director has said the origins of the film were inspired by one question: “How do human beings react in sudden and unexpected situations, such as a catastrophe?” Like Tomas and Ebba, sometimes the best way to handle the situation is to put your head down and forge ahead.