"Force Majeure," Karl Ove Knausgaard, and the Disease of Manhood

At a party recently, I overheard someone in his twenties talking about how much he enjoyed a television show called The Fall because it made him think about how “being a man is its own kind of disease.” People of both genders nodded in a sympathetic way. If this is a moment when young people seek out opportunities for misandry, there are plenty of occasions to do so; even pulp entertainments like Game of Thrones and Mad Max: Fury Road put men at the center not to assert male power but to invite us to squirm at its failure. But if you’re looking for contemporary renderings of manhood as a disease, particularly as a sickness that contaminates the nuclear family, you’re best off seeking out artists emerging from a quieter and more somber territory. The land I refer to is, of course, Sweden.

The film Force Majeure, directed and written by Ruben Ostlund, addressed the modern nuclear family and its masculine saboteurs more directly than probably any other fiction last year. A dark comedy set in a French ski resort, the movie’s tone is dire and its jokes bone dry. “This isn’t us,” Ebba, the family’s mother says during a fight. “I don’t recognize us at all. I don’t recognize you, or myself—” “I don’t recognize you either,” her husband, Tomas, replies. At times it’s hard to remember the movie is a comedy because of its soundtrack, which is, almost exclusively, the opening hysterics of “Summer” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. (Summer-ski resort, marriage hiccup-life crisis—you see the dialectic sense of humor we’re dealing with here.)

The resort’s perfection is unbearable, the cinematography a parody of Kubrickian symmetry. Shots hold on piste maps, snow blowers, and chairlifts happy to hum and clank independent of humanity. Some scenes feature a drone, but it’s a “friendly drone, some kind of toy that amuses Tomas as much as it does his children.”

On day two an avalanche, supposedly a “controlled” one, enters the view off a terrace restaurant where Tomas, Ebba and their two children are having lunch. Watching the snow rush down the hill toward their table, Ebba asks if it’s safe. Tomas assures her it is, and films it with his iPhone. But the avalanche keeps approaching, and looks, at the end, like it’s going to demolish the terrace and everyone on it. The screen goes white. As the snow settles we see that Ebba and the children are safe—she has thrown herself on them to protect them. Tomas, meanwhile, comes clunking back to the table in his snow boots. He’d run from the table, leaving his wife and kids.

The rest of the movie explores what his momentary flight says about their marriage. None of Ebba’s conclusions are particularly optimistic. She wonders if all men are so self-interested (and cowardly) that they’ll abandon their wives and children in order to save themselves. Or perhaps it’s just that Tomas no longer loves her. A long time passes on-screen before Ebba addresses the incident directly, but once she does, the movie coolly and relentlessly drives home the notion that there is something inherently terrible about Tomas, or at least that their marriage has become broken beyond repair. Even scenes of the couple Sonicaring their teeth in the lodge’s mirror have a sense of inescapable horribleness. With its male idiot lead and bourgeois setting, it’s like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm gone terribly wrong.

Force Majeure is one of those movies where it feels like something really drastic might happen, but then nothing much ever does. So much of its volatile action remains just under the surface, in the form of flaws, misunderstandings, festering resentments. In this, and many other ways, it resembles that other Scandinavian phenomenon My Struggle, and I have to imagine that, if he saw this movie, Karl Ove Knausgaard must have enjoyed watching this perfect Swedish family disintegrate like so much rotten Ikea particleboard.

The Swedes and their priggishness about reproductive relationships are a source of amusement and frustration for that self-loathing (and self-celebrating) Norwegian. Karl Ove leaves his first wife at the beginning of My Struggle Book Two (ominously sub-titled A Man in Love), moves to Stockholm, gets a haircut (a reference to Swann, in Knausgaard’s avowed inspiration, getting one when Odette’s spell is finally broken?), and reconnects with the Swedish Linda, the woman of his dreams. He’d met her years prior in a writing program. She rejected him then, and in response he methodically cut his own face with shards of glass. They go on to have four children.

This means that Karl Ove, who elsewhere details the baroque abuses of his own father, must now navigate the hazards of parenthood himself. He has to mingle with parents at nurturing Swedish birthday parties where the kids couldn’t care less about the elaborate games and sugarless cake. He wants to leave the country for a soccer match, but much as he’d like to he can’t leave a week after the birth, explaining to his friends, “We’re not men from the 1950s.” He joins in singalongs at the library with his daughter while dreaming of bedding the woman with the guitar. “As a result,” he narrates, pushing a stroller, “I walked around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminized, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside me.”

There is even a moment in Book Two similar to the inciting action of Force Majeure. When Linda is a few months pregnant with their first child, they go on a boat ride with his friend Arvid. The boat skips up and Linda wants Karl Ove to tell Arvid to slow down. He doesn’t. “Surely it should have been the easiest thing in the world to do, shouldn’t it,” he writes, “to tell someone to slow down, my girlfriend was pregnant?” He then dwells at length on why that should have been especially important for him, given her history of depression. Even when she’s very pregnant: “How I hated going against my nature to satisfy her.”

But Knausgaard also acknowledges that all of his Viking impulses are of course why the progressivism he describes as characterizing the modern Swedish marriage is necessary. If man is a disease, this is the cure: mating in partnership, being a husband of deference rather than one of dominance.

Force Majeure implies this too, and until his betrayal Tomas seems to be a good Swedish husband, kindly doing his to part to tend to his fussy children (like My Struggle, the movie mostly represents children not even as love souvenirs but as pure and simple fetters, treat-grubbing little complainers). But his flight exposes that it was a sham, forces us to confront that maybe we knew it was a sham all along.

For the pathologically serious Karl Ove, marriage is the only way. He needs Linda, tells her that he wants them to have children together the morning after they sleep together for the first time. Later he admits that the period in which he was happy with Linda only lasted six months, which is surely part of the reason the real Linda cried when she read Book Two (something Knausgaard told The Guardian). But at least he paints everything with the same brush, and embraces the detritus of his relationship along with his failures. His honesty might sting, but one has the sense that his nastiness is out in the open, rather than hidden and waiting to erupt.

For Ebba and Tomas, a businessman with an iPhone addiction and not much self-awareness, things are different. The movie explores their alternatives to marriage on three occasions following the avalanche. The first immediately follows it: Ebba puts on lipstick and says she wants to ski on her own that day. While peeing in the woods she catches sight of Tomas and the children and starts to cry. Unlike Tomas, she is incapable of running away. This point is hammered home in a discussion with an older friend Charlotte, who seems to navigate her open marriage without any problems at all and may be the movie’s only sane character. (Ebba not only doesn’t want to leave, she tells Charlotte she fears being “left behind” in an open marriage.) The third occasion involves a visit from Tomas’s divorced, snowboarding bro Mats, who has left his kids with his ex-wife for the getaway, accompanied by his much younger girlfriend Fanni. Even Fanni finds their arrangement ridiculous by the end, and tells Mats that he would likely flee an avalanche too. The message in all this is clear: certain men need wives far more than certain women need husbands. The tragedy is that Ebba isn’t one of those women, or at least hasn’t figured out how to be one.

If Karl Ove embraces his boorishness, Tomas denies his. He turns away from it, ramps up the uxoriousness and places his emotions entirely in Ebba’s hands. She in turn becomes his antagonist. This occurs almost exactly halfway through the movie, when she forces Fanni and Mats to crowd around Tomas’s iPhone and watch his terror during the avalanche because he keeps denying that he ran. He’s trapped, and that makes two of them.

She locks him out of the room. When she lets him in she talks on the phone to a friend about an affair, laughing, “You’ve been in a relationship for five years and you feel like playing around. He understands that right?” Tomas goes over and grabs her breasts. She pushes him away. Soon he’s outside the room with his face in his hands, but Ebba points out he isn’t actually crying. Then he does: “I’m a victim too! I’m a bloody victim of my own instincts!” We’re entering Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory here—where husband and wife prick each other just to feel something—but at least George gave as good as he got. And Ebba takes no pleasure in this.

To be in a bad marriage in this film is worst when the characters confront the fact that there’s no need to be married, or faithful. (During one of his breakdowns Tomas references his past infidelity, which, really, might be what the whole movie is actually about.) The torture is so much worse for being elective.

But if love is founded in lies, the lies here nonetheless prevail. In the end Ebba has to pretend to be hurt herself so Tomas can fake rescue her on the penultimate day of the trip (the soundtrack here turns to Vivaldi). It’s not clear if this is a sustainable solution. In the final scene, Ebba is concerned about the safety of the bus taking her and Tomas and their kids back down the mountain; she convinces everyone except Charlotte to get off. The bus drives off fine and the families have to walk. Tomas lights up for the first time in the movie, and smokes the same way Karl Ove smokes: to signal impotent, self-destructive independence.

It’s a little like the last shot of The Graduate, when Elaine in her wedding dress and Ben, who finally made up his mind, get onto their bus laughing. Then their smiles fade to “The Sounds of Silence” and the vibe is very “what now?” That same question comes across with even more dread in Force Majeure and My Struggle: Really, what now? Would you want to be married to Karl Ove Knausgaard?

Dan Duray is a writer living in New York