Potential Space

by Jane Reingold, MFT


An establishing shot in the French Alps of a small resort town -- dwarfed by majestic mountain peaks, seemingly trapped and surrounded, vulnerable to the elements -- sets the stage for a young family's ski vacation in Ruben Ostlund's film Force Majeure. As the camera pans closer and we hear Vivaldi's syncopated summer concerto, we see a highly controlled and manicured environment, a facade of harnessed, controlled, neutered nature. Ominous blasts setting off controlled avalanches, puncturing the suface of what cannot be known or controlled, of what lurks beneath, are the only disquieting signs of something amiss.

A blissful veneer clings to Tomas, Ebba, and their two young children as we follow them through their seemingly idyllic vacation and pristine fun. We see the family wearing identical blue long johns, napping after a long day of skiing -- the portrait of merger and domestic bliss. All four, connected at the hip, line the bathroom mirror as they brush their teeth.

During brunch the next morning, a controlled avalanche rages out of control. Tomas runs away in a split second, saving himself and leaving Ebba to protect the children. The screen goes white. When the dust settles and everyone is fine, a schism, a rupture in the marital container, is laid bare by the internal avalanche unfolding inside each of them. "This is not us," Ebba says to Tomas. Ebba is distraught, profoundly let down, unmoored by what has transpired. She has seen in her husband something foreign to her and profoundly disturbing. Left alone in a state of terror and with deep feelings of betrayal, her illusions of mutuality and fusion shattered, she no longer sees Tomas as the omnipotent protector, the patriarchal savior keeping them from harm, the ideal other who will never let her down.

Unable to acknowledge the betrayal, Tomas retreats into a state of denial of what the avalanche dislodged inside himself and the marriage. Ebba's distress amplifies, as does her insistence that they share the same view of the event. Tomas concedes and descends into a dramatic breakdown of self-loathing. Neither of them can tolerate what this moment, this force majeure, set in motion and stripped away.

The rupture of the unconscious marital contract challenges the couple's underlying assumptions and projections about each other, their unconscious shared beliefs and agreements about roles and expectations. Both are left to reconcile the fallout from this fractious experience, to grieve the loss of the merged, idealized other, the partner who can be fully known. In the wake of this avalanche, an opportunity for a more mature relating also becomes possible. As British psychoanalytic couples therapist James Fisher aptly stated, mature intimacy is a "state of mind marked by humility in the face of the infinitely unknowable mystery of the reality of the other."