Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Ruben Ostlund
Stars: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergen, Vincent Wettergen, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Jakob Granqvist, Brady Corbet.
Sweden’s nomination for the 2015 Foreign Language film Oscar is this droll observational comedy that explores themes of masculinity in today’s society, marriage, and family.
A seemingly happy Swedish family are holidaying in the Alps, enjoying the skiing and their five star accommodation. They appear to be the perfect family and the opening scenes show them happy, playing and making the most of their time together. But the good times won’t last for long.
On the second day the family are dining at the outdoor restaurant at the ski lodge when an incident occurs that threatens to tear their marriage apart. A small avalanche begins – it is supposedly a controlled avalanche. But as it heads towards the lodge, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) panics and flees grabbing his mobile phone, leaving his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) behind to protect the two children. The repercussions of that small moment of selfishness are felt for the rest of the holiday.
Ebba’s continual reminders of Tomas’ failings cast a pall over the holiday, and cause a palpable tension between the pair. There are uncomfortable silences and guilty looks, and even the couple’s children are affected by the tension and uneasy atmosphere. The sense of tension and uneasiness that shapes the relationship gives the film a coldness. The breakdown between the two is quietly observed by the hotel’s stone faced and nonjudgmental janitor (Jakob Granqvist).
Force Majeure also asks the audience to think about how they would react in a similar situation. Similarly there was a brief, blink and you missed it moment in the recent The Loneliest Planet that tapped into that same survival instinct – when Gael Garcia Bernal and his female travelling companion were confronted by a couple of gun wielding bandits, his first instinct was to shove her in front of him. That action shaped their relationship for the rest of their vacation, with mistrust and suspicion colouring their relationship.
Director Ruben Ostlund (2011 drama Play, etc) is a filmmaker with a background in making documentaries and ski films, and he is in his element with the snow covered settings here. He brings a nice clean and crisp visual style to the film, but the drama is almost theatrical in its staging. Many of the more offbeat and smaller incidents that happen here – like the crazy bus ride at the end – have been inspired in part by Ostlund’s fascination with You Tube.
Cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel has shot the film in long static takes, which occasionally emphasises the growing distance between Tomas and Ebba. Each day ends with the couple brushing their teeth in the bathroom in awkward silence, but their body language and subtle glances reveal that there is a palpable tension between them. There are long takes in which little happens, unlike American cinemas preference for kinetic and mobile camera work that adds an atmosphere of artificial energy and tension to the material. And the shots of the snow fields at night are accompanied by the haunting strains of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which perfectly represents the inner turmoil of the family.
Tomas is the more sympathetic character and Kuhnke invests him with a vulnerability that is quite painful to watch at times as he confronts his failings. Despite her surface harshness, Kongsli brings a brittle quality to her performance as Ebba. The pair share a credible chemistry even when they are bickering. Their children Vera and Harry are played by real life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergen, and they manage to project an innocence and hurt quality as they worry that their parents are going to split up as a result of that incident.
This bleak and searing study of a marriage under pressure has gained a limited cinematic release on the art house circuit here, which means that probably not many people will check it out, even though it is deserving of a wider audience. Force Majeure is challenging stuff and not the most upbeat of films, but Ostlund’s striving to find a happy ending makes the final moments seem a little false and contrived.