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A Review of Force Majeure

By Jenifer Sutherland, Clinical Member, OSP

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of prOSPect.

A film, when it is complex and compelling, is like a good session of supervision. In a darkened theatre we are acutely aware of the forces moving through the cinematic session and then, more gradually, we come to terms with its socially constructed world.

Force Majeure is a good example of supervision by film. In the opening scene, a photographer arranges Tomas and Ebba and their two pre-adolescent children into the conventional poses of a model family on a ski vacation in the Swiss Alps. Ebba’s head is directed onto the shoulder of Tomas, suggesting dependence. At the resort’s registration desk, Ebba explains to Charlotte, an older woman taking her vacation outside of her open marriage, that they are here so that Tomas can focus on his family for a while.

The ski lodge looks like a remake of Bentham’s Panopticon in radiant pinewood. A custodian on cigarette break assumes the role of guard and judge. From what point of view are we watching? Charlotte takes up with a young lover. We also meet Mats, a Nordic bear of a man vacationing with young Fanni. Fanni restrains Mats’ exuberance, at intervals, by reminding him that his estranged wife is at home taking care of his children. These alternative perspectives frame the ordeal that Tomas and Ebba are about to undergo.

Where are we in the structure? Perhaps for a while we watch from above like the custodian with his keys. But soon we are in the thick of the drama. The crisis occurs when Tomas abandons his wife and children to run from what appears to be an avalanche, the force majeure — on the obvious level — of the film’s title. The scene is caught on Ebba’s cellphone, to become hard evidence for shame and blame that is so often where we get stuck.

“They need therapy,” Mats says to young Fanni. The two couples are gathered to enjoy wine by a roaring fire. Mats steps up to the job, providing them with space to process and with gentle guiding questions. But before long he is in up to his own eyeballs. The scene of self-examination that follows will entertain those of us whose conscience periodically robs us of sleep.

A good supervisor helps the therapist ask what’s going on in a session, not only for the client, but also for us. As a woman, I was tempted to plug for Ebba, agonized by her husband’s passive self-preservation and his lackluster approach to the work of repair. But her unrelenting fury, we quickly see, is unproductive. The children, meanwhile, become rebellious. Their needs are being forgotten! In fact, Tomas does make a redeeming heroic gesture on the slopes, while the children are required to wait in disciplined anticipation on the sidelines. There is personal growth, certainly.

But this is not the end. What is the major force of the film’s title? We can be pleased with ourselves for the work we’ve done with a couple, or an individual, but have we been accomplices to the conventional pose that is played out in the opening scene with the photographer? Where are the cracks in the frame?

In the final scene — long, tense and bleak — the alternative perspective provided by Charlotte returns as commentary. This time it is Ebba who panics. Mats shifts into the heroic role, ushering passengers and children — women and children first — from a bus that is having difficulty taking the switchbacks from the ski resort back down the mountain. Only Charlotte stays on board — the others proceed the long distance by foot, in silence, presumably reflecting on the dangers and difficulties of life and their solitude in the face of the inevitability of death. Charlotte goes down with the driver, accepting the risks and small comforts of chance.

Supervision encourages us to come down from Panopticon’s watch to engage empathically and introspectively with the points of view during the film, meeting the challenge of the director’s careful framing. Where are we at the end? Do we fly off the bus in discomfort at a strange edge of experience? Do we rise to the occasion with Mats as he leads the group down the mountain, restoring social order, no matter how uncomfortable? Or, like Charlotte, do we continue on alone with the driver on the bus not knowing the outcome, not judging or controlling, but estranged from the ordinary pack?
Where are we in this picture? What are the forces that push and pull us as we live and listen and respond through a session? Is there a single or major force that propels us? How does the combination of forces move us as we climb and descend the mountain?

Force Majeure trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nTJIc_e6Ns.

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