Basic Instinct

Last night I watched Force Majeure by Swedish director Ruben Ostlund. It raised some interesting questions about morality and our basic instinct for survival.

How would you react in a crisis? Would you run and save yourself or try and save your loved ones, and even total strangers?

The answer sounds obvious. Of course, the decent thing to do would be to be loyal, helpful and selfless. Now let’s add a dash of honesty and reality and see what happens.

This is how it plays out in Force Majeure. A Swedish family is holidaying in the French Alps, enjoying lunch and the spectacular views of the mountains when a controlled avalanche spins out of control, crashing towards them on the terrace. Everyone panics and Tomas, the husband/father grabs his phone and runs, without a thought for his wife, Ebba and their two kids. Ebba, on the other hand, tries unsuccessfully to carry both kids to safety, and ends up hiding under the table.

Disaster is averted, the avalanche stops before hitting them and normality resumes, kind of. Tomas returns to the table. But nothing is the same for this family. Tomas denies running and abandoning his family, claiming that he doesn’t share her view of the experience —this theme of truth and perception is just as interesting as the one about human survival instinct, but that’s another story — while his wife is outraged and upset that his instinct was to flee rather than protect them.

Who’s to say what anyone would do in this situation. I had inkling what I would do as I found myself identifying with Tomas. Does the impulse to survive make me inherently selfish? Should I be ashamed of my instincts? Now, if I had kids or someone vulnerable with me perhaps I would act differently. Hopefully. Maybe.

Funnily enough, I relayed the story to my husband and the first thing he said was “You’d run.” But I think he would too.

Does that make him more selfish than me? Are there different expectations for men and women in disaster situations? Is it more acceptable for women to save themselves? Is it realistic for men to act all heroic, saving the women and the children, like they do in Hollywood movies?

According to Ostlund, who has researched disaster survivors, men in real life situations don’t behave like heroes and Tomas’s reaction is no surprise. A case in point is the sinking of the Estonia ferry, where “you could tell from the eyes of the survivors that they knew what it had ten to come through an extreme situation like that.”

Force Majeure is a clever metaphor for the human attempt to control nature. The setting on the snow fields with the controlled avalanches, snow boomers clearing the snow and the extreme weather conditions, remind us that nature, like our basic instincts, are just that —innate impulses —not a force within our power to contain.