Force MajeureReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/20/14 18:08:34
SCREENED AT FANTASTIC FEST 2014: Danger lurks constantly in "Force Majeure", although it's seldom the life-and-limb variety as opposed to the family-falling-apart one. Impressive, given the sheer volume of explosions being set off to cause controlled avalanches. The obvious reminder that there is no such thing serves as the basic premise of the film, and you're not going to see it presented on screen much better.It's one of those controlled avalanches that really sets things off as a Swedish family on a five-day vacation in a French ski resort - father Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), daughter Vera (Clara Wettergren), and son Harry (Vincent Wettergren) - eat lunch in a rooftop restaurant on the second day and see one roll much closer than expected. No harm done, except that Thomas's reaction exposes a potentially much more serious rift in the marriage than the previous talk of how he works all the time or can't turn away from his phone.
That plays into it, of course, but filmmaker Ruben Östlund is not going to reduce the family's issues into something quite that simple. He does key on something rather basic - a fear of abandonment that both spouses and children in a situation like this feel, and while he's not exactly subtle about it at times (after all, subtle isn't necessarily the way it works with kids), the variations are well-chosen, and there are actual counter-examples given on occasion. The idea of the avalanche is well-chosen, too, as one thing has an effect that gets bigger well beyond the immediate and expected radius.
Östlund presents this in a controlled manner that is nevertheless unnerving, with every scene taking place against a pristine, well-maintained background, whether it be the beautiful resort buildings or the slopes which even look pristine as Östlund shows them being maintained between each day - wonderfully surreal images that not only sell the audience on how unnatural and difficult keeping something in perfect shape is, but which get the audience used to the bangs used for those controlled avalanches so that there's nothing out-of-place about them on the soundtrack, even as they become a barrage during a climactic scene. And despite every scene having a clear purpose and the design work tending toward the exceptionally clean, the film seldom feels sterile or chilly; there's a human heart to each moment.
Typically, it's Lisa Loven Kongsli providing it; Ebba is given a chance to be shaken early on, and watching this newly heightened fear surface in different ways is fascinating, especially since even when a viewer might feel like Ebba is pushing too hard on something, Kongsli never seems to be overdoing it. Even when we mostly see her as the familiar "capable wife", she still feels very individual. The film sets her up to be doing the opposite thing as Johannes Kuhnke's Tomas, but that doesn't make him the villain of the piece; Tomas's actions may often be cringe-worthy, but watching circumstances chip away at him is amazing to see. Clara & Vincent Wettergren, though shuffled off-screen at certain points, are small-scale terrific as the kids, even when they don't have much in the way of lines; one of the best moments in the movie is Vera looking disgusted while her parents argue in the next room.
Surprisingly, considering how much the film follows things falling apart, it's also quite funny. Sometimes it's the comedy of discomfort, but even when it starts out there, Östlund frequently uses that as a launching point for great back-and-forth. Just about everything involving Tomas's friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju), for example, starts as "please stop trying to give advice", but spins off into his own oddness. The big laughs are plentiful, even if they don't always sound funny out of context."Force Majeure" has just been announced as Sweden's entry to the Oscars, which seems like pretty good news: That will certainly help it get into more North American theaters than a random foreign-language movie would, and it's something in which almost anybody can find something to appreciate.
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