Nov 17, 2014

Force Majeure

This smart, disturbing film by writer director Ruben Ostlund, winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes and Sweden's official entry to the Academy Awards, takes place at an antiseptic ski resort in the French Alps, where a young family is on vacation. Tomas is attached to his job and his cell phone, Ebba may have insisted on spending quality time with her husband and the kids, and the two children are slightly spoiled.
It's hard to talk about this film without going into major plot spoilers, as the story hinges on a powerful twist. Suffice it to say, everything is going relatively hunky dory until an act of nature upsets the balance of this seemingly solid family. Nobody dies; worse: they have to live with each other from then on. This is not The Impossible, where people are heroes. It's not a natural disaster movie, it's a human disaster movie.
Ostlund is interested in the tectonic shifts that lie under the surface of a relationship. His characters don't act like we expect them to. Ebba turns out to be a bit of a passive aggressive and Tomas, well, he is a calamity. And the way nature mirrors the family's implosion is a brilliant metaphor: a natural disaster almost can't hold a candle to man made emotional disasters. The destructive forces that lie under the seemingly placid snow echo the painful epiphanies that surface from deep within the hearts we think we know.
Force Majeure is an emotional horror movie. These people being Swedish, they try to keep it all under a guise of supposed equality and civilization that frays the more they try to keep it under control.  What's more, Ostlund creates a powerful sense of dread without tipping his hand or using anything but the sights and sounds, and particularly the eerie silences, of the mountain.
In this ski resort, man made explosions make sure that the mountain is well stocked with fluffy powder. Ostlund shows images and sounds of detonations and huge caterpillar-like vehicles tending the snow at night for tomorrow's skiers. He shows the smallness of the skiers against the majesty of the Alps, the humans apparently oblivious to the risks they take in that imposing playground.
At one point, Ebba decides she wants to ski alone. After what's happened, one questions her motives, if not her sanity. Instead of duking it out or screaming at her husband, there is something more complicated going on: unpredictable human behavior. So there she sits in the fragile little gondola, against a wall of white, with empty chairs clanking creepily as she ascends. There are almost never other people, let alone first aid personnel. This is a place where risks are taken, including hurling children on skis down mountains. People do it all the time, but after this movie you may not look benignly at a ski resort ever again.
It has little to do with the snow (although skiing seems like a hell of a lot of trouble), and more with the following question, when faced with a similar situation, what would you do? Would you do as Tomas did? Would you understand, be judgmental, forgive, punish?  He does something appalling, and then keeps digging himself into a hole of denial. It is almost terrifying to watch him dissemble into childish self-pity. But it is also darkly funny. The couple is met by another couple who serve as a sort of Greek chorus. Tomas's best friend, divorced and now shacking up with a much younger woman, tries to rationalize and justify Tomas's action, in solidarity with his male buddy. There is a hilarious scene where this couple suffers emotional fallout just for having listened to Tomas and Ebba's story. It is funny and dispiriting at the same time. Ostlund is not sanguine about love and marriage. It takes a lot out of people. It's even harder than skiing.
The end brings another twist, in which Ostlund turns the tables on Ebba and on us. It's a bit of a headscratcher that leaves you grasping for motivation, but you can be sure that nobody emerges unscathed. Force Majeure is a strikingly original film that will make you think about strength and cowardice, men and women, impulse and reason, judgment and forgiveness, human nature.

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