Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Force Majeure

(France, Sweden, Norway, 2014)

It means, more or less, “Act of God.” Something that couldn’t have been predicted, like an earthquake, a riot, a war, a tsunami … or an avalanche.

There’s this nice Swedish or Norwegian (I wasn’t clear) family on a ski holiday at a very nice resort in France. There is Mama, and Papa, and a little girl about ten and a little boy about seven. The nights are rattled by the booms of snow cannons making sure nothing builds up deeply enough to be trouble. After a morning on the slopes, they are eating lunch on a terrace outside the lodge. A cannon goes off, and a huge avalanche starts down the mountain. Everyone watches, because it’s beautiful. Only … isn’t it getting a little close? Aw, they know what they’re doing. Sure they do. And yet … damn, that thing is getting close! I wonder if we should … I mean, when is it going stop? Oh, man here it comes!!!!

FREEZE FRAME. (Just for the purposes of this review. The movie did not freeze … except that the whole movie was friggin’ freezin’!)

At this point we could move into a perfectly ordinary disaster thriller. The whole family is trapped under the ice. Or maybe just the mama and the kids, and papa has to rescue them. Or we follow the rescue party as they work desperately, because it’s getting warmer and all that snow and ice is about to slide down the valley, two miles to the bottom. There can be any number of scenarios, with any number of hairbreadth escapes. Any screenwriter could do it in his sleep.

But there is a more interesting way to go.

ROLL CAMERA. The papa picks up his iPhone (everyone’s most valuable possession these days), turns around, and runs away. His family is engulfed in whiteness, screams, and chaos. And then … the whiteness slowly clears away. It was snow fog pushed ahead of the avalanche, which stopped at the base of the terrace. No one is hurt, though I’m sure there’s not a dry diaper in the house. Papa returns to the table and the family continues with the meal.

For about a day, no one mentions what happened. They all seem to have trouble getting their minds around it. Did Papa really run off, abandon us to our fates? It becomes too much for Mama, and she confronts him with it. And he didn’t see it that way. His perception of the event was different. He maintains that he didn’t run. This disconnect grows and festers, and threatens to tear them apart. Will he ever admit to what we clearly saw? It is fascinating to see how it goes from there, and I will tell you no more.

Artistically, it’s a real winner. The snowscapes are worthy of a National Geographic special. The filming technique is good, too. Almost every shot, including the money-shot special effect of the snow fog engulfing the terrace, is shown from a static camera. It seldom moves, even if some of the actors movie out of frame. This puts us in the position of a fly on the wall, not being manipulated by moves and edits. Ironically, the theme from Vivaldi’s “Summer” pops up at odd moments. The outdoor scenes of the family schussing down the slopes almost made me want to take up skiing. But not quite. This Southeast Texas boy will remain on the flatlands, thank you very much.