The Menace of Comedy
Watching Force Majeure, I was strongly put in mind of a term which to my knowledge has hardly ever been applied to recent work: the comedy of menace. If this term is heard nowadays, it is usually in relation to theatrical writing in a specific context (Britain in the late 1950s) and in particular to the early work of Harold Pinter.[i] But it strikes me as a precise characterisation of what Ruben Öustlund is up to in his film.
The comedy of menace is perhaps easier to recognise than to define. Francesca Coppa notes that menace “depends on ignorance; the terror of it stems from the vagueness of the threat. We do not know what is happening or why, and the lack of information leads us to fear the worst”. In contrast, black comedy “treats serious themes comedically, without the respect they deserve; it says too much, it says what should not be said”.[ii] That is, it makes it too clear what is really going on.
To this point, I would add that a sense of menace requires not just that characters be under threat, but that the audience empathises with them enough to feel a kind of vulnerability themselves. The effect is very different to seeing a comedy where you know something bad is going to happen to one of the characters, but you feel no empathy with them:
Tomas and Ebba (Johannes Kuhnke & Lisa Loven Kongsli) are taking a holiday with their children in a ski resort. In the face of an unexpectedly violent avalanche, Tomas abandons his wife and children to their fate. The avalanche turns out to be harmless, but Ebba cannot get over this betrayal. The incident and the themes it raises are discussed in three scenes – a dinner with a couple they met at the resort, a dinner with their old friends Fanni and Mats, and a scene between Mats and Fanni – which are masterpieces of tension and awkward comedy.
Awkward or cringe comedy, where the humour is rooted in the social embarrassment felt by the characters, has been a staple of television in particular for years. Where Force Majeure develops the form is in the length of these three scenes, and the naturalistic presentation of the characters before and during them. Larry David and David Brent are well-rounded characters, but we are never in doubt that they are comically deluded about themselves. Neither Tomas nor Ebba are presented as comic prior to the incident with the avalanche – indeed, the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film could easily pass as a finely-observed drama of bourgeois life. The comedy is introduced slowly and inexorably, with far less plot machinery and a much more drawn-out (in a good way) pay-off than is typical of sitcoms specialising in cringe comedy.
One difference between the comedy of early Pinter and that found in Force Majeure is that the menace in the latter is not that vague. We have a pretty good idea of what’s happening and what will happen, in outline at least – indeed, it is so excruciating precisely because of this. That said, there is still menace afoot, in that we certainly fear the worst, even as it is unfolding before our eyes. This is perhaps the novel element which cringe comedy introduces to the comedy of menace: the sense of vulnerability we feel is heightened not the by the vagueness of the threat, but by its gruesome familiarity.