Movie Review FORCE MAJEURE

force majeureI’m not sure there is such a thing as a truly happy family vacation. I surmise that Director Ruben Östlund isn’t so sure either, but he is highly adept at using the theme to illustrate the excruciating wounds of a quietly disintegrating marriage. Perched in the wind-blasted angles of the French Alps in the exclusive nest of Les Arcs, the tidy nuclear family tries to relax, reconnect and last but not least, have fun. Their days and nights are punctuated by repetitive avalanche canon blasts, as they move en masse through the blank slate of the perfect ski slope and the warm wood lined lodge. Amidst the splendor and vast expanses we, dear viewers, already know there is nowhere for Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) to hide from what is slowly advancing towards them both literally and figuratively. The film spares no time in establishing that Tomas is far more committed to his work than to his wife and children, Vera & Harry. Their ski vacation is an attempt to get him to ‘unplug,’ a premise which pretty much guarantees there will be conflict and pain in short order.

Portraying a relaxed closeness we see the family skiing happily together on day one. The sun shines, the Alps are glorious and they have slope-side portraits taken to commemorate the glory. The family naps together in the lodge’s huge bed, all in their light blue long underwear, the children safely nestled between their parents. All is calm and well from a distance, but don’t look too closely. The couple stands next to each other in the bathroom – like many couples  – engaging in the daily parallel play of personal maintenance; brushing their teeth, washing and doing all the things we do unconsciously morning and night. Mirroring each other, yet never making direct eye contact they are worlds apart. The children are largely silent, cooperating and following along peacefully. They are a typical upper middle class family from any industrialized nation. The mountains are themselves a character looming over and encircling the family with an ever present threat of danger, yet simultaneously providing a blank slate for their idealized rapprochement. The hills ominously dare the family to have fun.

When the critical narrative engine barrels in in the form of a lunch time avalanche, it is swift and shocking. In the split second of panic, of reptilian hind-brain survival mode, Tomas makes a choice and it is a gesture which defines everything about someone, about their relationships, about their nature and is one of those actions people take in life which can never be undone, never forgotten and after which life will never be the same. In the aftermath of the avalanche, Ebba finds herself in multiple scenarios and conversations where she can question not only the event itself but the structure of her entire marriage, family role and societal choices. She challenges her bohemian and libertine friend about her vacation affairs, she tries to get her husband’s longtime friend Mats, the fantastically Nordic and hirsute Kristofer Hivju, to understand her experience of what transpired. She spends a day skiing alone to process the conflict and get proverbially lost in the vast white blankness.

What makes FORCE MAJEURE  more than just another portrait of turmoil and marital discord is the play of power between the spouses, the skill with which Director Östlund allows the scenes to unfold, and touches of nervous self conscious humor. Subtle yet real humor in the strangest of places. It is the same reason you laugh when you hurt yourself, or in my case, when my young children would bang their head on the corner of a table; you’re so horrified and scared you don’t know what else to do but laugh. Woven though the film is the lodge’s custodian, a silent witness to all that transpires between Ebba and Tomas. He shows up at the most opportune times to see them attempting to talk ‘privately’ in the massive exposed hallway of the lodge. He peers down on them from higher vantage points, smoking, listening, gathering. We wonder what secrets he has witnessed and what wisdom he could impart but never does.

While the screenplay is well written and not flooded with dialogue, the film allows critical information be communicated best in non verbal ways which convey tension and mood beautifully. The movie has long unedited shots, not tracking shots per se, but Östlund holds steady the frame holds allowing the characters to move in and out and through. It yields a very organic view of family life with all its microscopic movements and touches both intentional and habitual. The spaces in-between, the silences, scream louder than any shriek. It is not merely about Tomas’ work, his utter detachment and insecurity. It is about expectations and power; who has it, who needs it and how does one get it back? In the end Ebba executes a move worthy of Kasparov, restoring the status quo to her nuclear unit and affirming her choice in the safety of the circumscribed life. It’s all here: Id versus Ego, nature versus civilization, convention versus heterodoxy, and its delicious .

(4.5 / 5)

Director: Ruben Östlund
Cast:Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren
Rating: R
Running Time: 118 minutes

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