By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
What happens when you discover you’re not who you’re meant to be? In that fine Scandinavian tradition, Force Majeure ruthlessly picks apart familial relationships by teasing out a thread and pulling until everything unravels. That it’s done against a beautifully rendered postcard setting and with a wicked streak of dark humour is all to director/writer Ruben Östlund’s credit.
The cinema of our northern European friends is particularly good at finding emotional weak points and exploiting them excruciatingly. At the flamboyant end of the spectrum there’s the theatrical discord of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, while Maria Blom’s Dalecarlians and happy Lukas Moodysson (dark Moodysson is a force to be feared) lace humour in amongst the awkwardness. Östlund, a previous boy wonder down with the YouTube generation and not averse to a controversial topic (see Play from 2011), takes the best of all worlds, forging a compulsive experience.
He opens with a picture of cheesy togetherness. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) pose with their young children Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren) for a family picture on the ski slope. Having offered a glimpse of the holiday they meant to enjoy, Östlund then tears it all down when a near miss avalanche causes Tomas to run away, abandoning his children and despairing wife in the process, though he doesn’t forget to pick up his gloves and phone first.
Trouble was already on the horizon. The couple are sharp with each other when trying to calm down Harry, and Ebba is heard remarking to a friend that they needed the holiday as Tomas has been working endlessly. And then, sat eating breakfast in a café outside, the snow comes thundering down blanking out the screen. The last image before it whites out is Ebba shielding the children and screaming for her husband who’s busy legging it to safety.
Awkwardness arises immediately when the snow clears to reveal an untouched terrace. Tomas returns and they sit down to eat, no one acknowledging what just happened. Gradually, Östlund chisels away at the marriage, first with casual allusions to the event, and then, as Ebba struggles to deal with this new side to Tomas, in conversation with friends. As she becomes angrier, he argues more and more adamantly that he never ran away. It’s only video footage of the event, and the chance to open up on the mountainside with old friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) that allows Tomas to come to terms with his actions.
Intimate moments unfold with terrifying ease, tension building steadily. It’s the arrival of Mats and his 20 year old girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius) that sees everything boil over. Ebba’s faltering narration and Tomas’ refusal to respond smothers an evening catch-up in discomfort. It also acts as a launching pad for Force Majeure to tear into gender expectations in a number of agonising scenes. Watching Tomas use a partially forced breakdown to manipulate Ebba into comforting him is painful. Later attempts to cede control back to Tomas are even worse as he recklessly leads his family down the slopes in almost zero visibility.
After hinting at the depths he might plumb, Östlund steers away from kitchen sink territory, affecting a playful approach heavy on dark humour. Ominous cutaways echo with booming classical chords and a series of incongruous scenes mount up in the second half. In one, Mats and Tomas find themselves complemented and insulted in the space of seconds, provoking the return of well-honed male aggression. There’s also plenty of opportunity for Östlund to cut loose on the slopes, capturing isolated skiers rolling down the pristine white background. He started his career making skiing films and it shows.
For all the wonderfully nuanced scenes and flinchingly realistic performances that hang off the terrific hook at the heart of the film, there’s still a tendency to overstep the mark. A point well-made already is hammered home for semi-comic effect in the final third. Tomas rips off the sticker of a chicken on his hotel door and separately gets caught up in a drunken explosion of machismo. The final scene stuck on a coach teetering over the edge of the abyss on the way down the mountain is also overkill, wrapping up previous arguments that should have remained unwrapped.
Force Majeure is not the brilliant film it gets so close to being. Pulling emotional punches in favour of dramatic simplicity, Östlund undermines his own premise. He settles for merely very good when something greater was in reach. It stays in the mind for a long time afterwards though. Smart, intelligent and compelling, it punctures the illusions we build around ourselves and others. How much do you really know yourself? On second thoughts don’t answer that. You might not like what you discover.
Force Majeure is in cinemas from Friday April 10th.