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force-majeure-poster

During the second day of a five-day ski vacation in the French Alps, a family of four happens to get lunch at their resort’s crowded, slope-side cafe. As they sit down to enjoy their meal, a nearby controlled explosion backfires and sends what seems to be an entire mountain-worth of snow surging towards the outdoor cafe: as the avalanche gets closer, crowds of panicked people flee in every direction, chaos incarnate. As Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) struggles to protect and comfort her children, Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren), she calls out for her husband, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), to no avail: turns out the family’s patriarch ran like hell as soon as the avalanche started, stopping only long enough to grab his phone and sunglasses. After the dust clears (literally), we see that the cascading mass of snow has stopped well short of the cafe: crisis averted, no one injured, everybody as you were. As Tomas sheepishly retakes his seat, however, the shocked stares from his disbelieving wife and kids are much louder than the mountain-side detonations: the next three days are going to feel like years…and not particularly good ones, at that.

This lapse of parental/spousal support forms the crux of writer-director Ruben Östlund’s brittle, frigidly humorous Force Majeure (2014), a thorny examination of the changing nature of gender roles, the passive-aggressive ways in which spouses needle at each other and the subtle ways in which self-preservation is as much a learned skill as an inherent instinct. While precious little about Östlund’s film is laugh-out-loud funny, there’s an ironic tilt to the film’s cap that belies the seemingly black-and-white nature of its subject: by their very natures, human are absurd animals and any attempt to bring order to the absurdity just makes it that much more absurd.

From the jump, Östlund drops subtle hints about the true nature of Tomas and Ebba’s relationship: she dotes on the children but seems decidedly less focused on her husband, he’s on a much-needed vacation from work but still spends an inordinate amount of time checking his phone. There seems to be a disconnect between the two long before Tomas’ act of cowardice tosses everything wholesale over the falls, leaving us to believe that this wasn’t the only straw, just the one that snapped the camel in two.

In certain ways, Force Majeure echoes Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) in that much of the external conflict between Tomas and Ebba stems from a fundamental difference in their versions of events at the cafe: Tomas firmly believes that he did not, in fact, run away, even though the video evidence is right on the phone that he managed to grab. As Tomas continues to push his version of events, his nit-picking and wheedling has the effect of making Ebba seem like an idiot, which only serves to push the two further apart.

Östlund expands the tableau out a little with the inclusion of Fanni (Fanni Metelius) and Mats (Kristofer Hivju), old friends of Tomas and Ebba’s who also find themselves at the same resort. As the couple attempts to rope their friends into supporting their individual versions of events, age difference starts to play a part: Mats and Tomas are older than Fanni and Ebba, which explains why Ebba jumped into action and Tomas didn’t. If Fanni and Mats had been on the slopes that day, Fanni posits, they would have reacted the exact same way. Cue Mat’s wounded masculine ego as he steadfastly disputes his wife’s assumption about his possible heroic tendencies. In no time at all, the two couples are at each other’s throats, with the women seeking to support each other while the men seek to reaffirm their stricken masculinity on the mountain-side in any way possible. Meanwhile, neither Harry nor Vera can even look their parents in the eye: as far as they’re concerned, everybody fucked up and assigning blame is sort of moot…from the mouths of babes, eh?

Concise, intimate and dedicated to the difficult relationship issues that others might gloss over, Östlund’s Force Majeure is quite the piece of art, aloof and emotionless as it might be. While it would have been the easiest thing possible to vilify Tomas, Östlund isn’t interested in any facile, easy answers: rather, he uses the film’s conclusion as a way to flip the script, indicting Ebba’s judgment in the same way that Tomas’ was impugned earlier. There are no easy answers in crisis situations, he seems to be saying, and any hard-and-fast rules are largely without merit: men and women will do what they will do, regardless of how “right” or “wrong” it is.

In a day and age when the very notions of masculinity and femininity are being redefined on a near constant basis, Force Majeure examines the issue from a multifaceted approach: age, gender and societal expectations all play a role in what transpires…remove any one factor, Östlund seems to be saying, and the whole complicated mess comes tumbling straight to the ground. Nowhere is this point made more evident than the scene where Mats and Tomas hit the slopes together, only to suffer another wound to their egos at the hands of a seemingly flirtatious female skier: as the situation escalates from amusing to awkward to rather horrible, it’s as if Östlund is giving us a short survey on the various ways in which men and women (poorly) interact. Despite being established as the “better” version of Tomas, Mats ends up being just as ridiculous and over-reactive as his friend when the chips are down.

One of the most interesting discussions in the film involves the old-fashioned patriarchal notion of the father/husband as “protector” of the family. If one were to apply modern conceptions of gender neutrality on the issue, Tomas would be no more responsible for solely “protecting” his family than Ebba would be solely responsible for nurturing them. Under this ideal, Tomas may not have acted heroically but he was acting instinctively, as a human animal. Tomas’ actions only prove explicitly cowardly if one examines his actions under the guise of traditional patriarchy/masculinity: as an “old-school” father/husband, Tomas is a roaring failure, putting his own concerns and safety above those of the family he’s sworn to protect. In a way, Östlund gets to work both sides of the argument with equal aplomb, right down to the finale, which re-frames the “protector” role in a way that makes Ebba the deficient one, not Tomas. It’s dirty pool, in a way, but really opens the film up to examination and interpretation from a number of angles.

So…Force Majeure is one of the cleverest, most cutting and insightful films of the year…is it actually a good film, though? In reality, Östlund’s film isn’t just good: it actually borders on the “quite extraordinary” end of things. For one thing, Force Majeure may have the single best cinematography of the year, with the possible exception of Wes Anderson’s exceptional Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel fashions some truly jaw-dropping shots: with brilliant azure skies, pristine white snow and brightly colored accents like the vibrant red location markers, Force Majeure is absolute and complete eye candy. There are a couple of nighttime mountain shots that are nothing short of stunning (the one with the toy airplane is pretty enough to hang in a museum) and the mountain setting has a grandeur and immensity to it that the whole experience becomes rather humbling: when compared to the beautifully rugged natural worlds, Tomas, Ebba, their kids (and us) are really just about as small and insignificant as it gets.

While Kuhnke is solid as the increasingly childish Tomas (his temper tantrum/breakdown is really something to behold), Kongsli’s turn as Ebba is the real meat of the matter: her slow-burn evolution from slightly put-upon to completely shattered would be heartbreaking if Östlund hadn’t muddied the water enough to offer some shades of doubt. There are moments during Force Majeure where Kuhnke and Kongsli deliver mountains worth of character development without uttering so much as a word: in particular, Östlund uses the family’s nightly ablutions to subtly portray the disintegration of the family unit, from happy unit to miserable individuals. It’s a wonderfully cinematic effect and one of the many little details that make Östlund’s film so constantly fascinating.

Despite how much I liked and respected Force Majeure, there were still a couple of issues that didn’t sit quite right with me. From a technical standpoint, I wasn’t big on the occasional switches to a 1st-person POV: these tended to take me out of the story and I couldn’t really see any notable reason for the affectation. It was actually one of the few points in the film that felt like style for style’s sake, which might be why it stuck out so much. I also felt that the film could, on occasion, get a little heavy-handed: by the final reel, there’s so much hand-wringing and distraught emotions that the formerly chilly film runs the risk of getting a little too over-heated. Finally, while I appreciated the ironic intent behind the final “twist,” it also had the effect of sending the movie off without any real sort of conclusion. Not a critical blow, mind you, since Östlund’s intent is pretty clear. For my money, however, the finale felt more like a non-committal shrug than the decisive statement that the film seemed to be building up to. It worked, ultimately, but could have hit quite a bit harder, as far as I’m concerned.

Ultimately, however, any quibbles are just that: minor irritations that do nothing to sully the overall positive impression of the film. Force Majeure is the kind of knotty, intelligent and quietly subversive independent film that we could use a whole lot more of: when the external explosions match the internal detonations, Force Majeure is just about as perfect an examination of a troubled marriage as one could find. In the end, deciding Tomas’ ultimate level of culpability will depend on lots of factors, not the least of which is the individual ideas and “baggage” that individual viewers bring to the proceedings. Determining Ruben Östlund’s abilities as a formidable filmmaker, however, is a much easier task: one simply needs to open their eyes and the proof is right there on the screen, for everyone to see.

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