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Dustin Putman

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Force Majeure  (2014)
4 Stars
Directed by Ruben Östlund.
Cast: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Karin Myrenberg Faber, Brady Corbet.
2014 – 118 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for some language and brief nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 13, 2014.
With all of the untainted resplendence of a travelogue and all of the cathartic emotional signification of human drama both high-powered and intimate, "Force Majeure" is an unsuspecting cinematic spectacle. Writer-director Ruben Östlund has crafted a dream for the senses, revelatory in its audacious examination of a provocative hot-button subject that has never before, in quite the same way, been broached in a feature film. Its visual conception and mise en scéne are hypnotic, aesthetically matching only Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" amongst this year's releases. The music, taking portentous advantage of an accordion rendition of Vivaldi's "Summer," threads the thorny narrative like a seamless cross-stitch. Tonally, there is near-perfection in Östlund's accomplished wedding of squirmy frostbitten humor and thoroughly dismaying interpersonal devastation, the two halves congealing into a single sublimely observed, entirely original slice-of-life. Indeed, "Force Majeure" works on so many different levels and unyieldingly pierces the heart of so many different relevant topics—about marriage and family, about gender roles and societal expectations, about self-sacrifice vs. self-preservation, about guilt and shame and everything else that makes us human—it comes as no surprise it won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

For Swedish couple Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their children, Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren), a relaxing, picturesque vacation at a ski resort in the French Alps instantly transforms into something far more contemplative and unsettling when they face what they initially believe to be a near-death experience. On their second of a planned five-day getaway, the family is lunching on an idyllic outdoor patio when they bear witness to what Tomas reassures Ebba is a controlled avalanche. When the mighty wave of powder barrels closer and looks like it is about to make impact, a panicked Tomas grabs his gloves and cell phone and runs, leaving behind his wife and kids to fend for themselves. The incident is a false alarm—the avalanche loses steam at the last second and only a light mist blankets them—but the silence that meets Tomas afterwards when he returns to their restaurant table is deafening. Vera and Harry question why their dad wasn't there when they needed him, and Ebba feels downright deceived by a man whom she had always assumed would try to protect them at any cost. When she can no longer keep her feelings inside, she is met with yet another betrayal: his unwillingness to admit to his decidedly unheroic actions.

"Force Majeure" opens with its central quartet posing for pictures on the slopes, each snapshot staged to present a fabricated version of reality. Away from the camera, they appear to be a happy, copacetic clan, free of unwanted strife and content to spend the bulk of their hours together. Following Tomas' spur-of-the-moment decision to abandon them and save his own skin, the luster of their tight-knit unit is instantaneously stripped away. Ebba wonders if she knows her husband as well as she once figured, but even more damning than what happened on that patio is how he chooses to deny it afterwards. Tomas says that he does not share her version of events, but in this instance there are no versions beyond the truth, her case supported all the more by the video he was recording when the avalanche hit. For a woman who would do anything for the ones she loves, Ebba is met in the days following by doubts about her life and—inspired by her new friendship with fellow mother Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg Faber), who has unapologetically left her family for a vacation with younger boy-toy Brady (Brady Corbet)—a revised outlook on the sanctity of relationships and common social mores.

Director Ruben Östlund is a master of insinuation, authenticity and purposeful discomfort, his characters' tense conversations punctuated by periods of quiet where it is readily clear what they are thinking and what they are in danger of verbally unleashing if they opt to finally speak their minds. In biting sequences where Ebba, in need of someone to listen to her, expels her pent-up feelings in front of Tomas to outside acquaintances—Charlotte and Brady at dinner, family friends Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and Fanny (Fanni Metelius) in a would-be jovial get-together that turns into a soul-baring therapy session—it is next to impossible to blink, let alone turn away. The more subtle moments are just as clearly and poignantly defined, from teeth-brushing sessions in front of their bathroom mirror, to their skiing excursions amidst a mountainous winter wonderland, to a scene where Ebba catches a lift to the top of the peak for some "alone" time and happens to privately spot Tomas and the kids through a patch of trees that separate them. One particular scene where Tomas and Mats have a strange encounter with some young ladies by the pool is deliciously awkward in the most spectacular way, playing out in a single shot as "Reload" by Sebastian Ingrosso and Tommy Trash blasts on the soundtrack. In another, a private conversation between Tomas and Ebba outside their hotel room finds relief in the natural absurdity that arises as a nosy man smoking a cigarette eavesdrops on them from across the way.

It is difficult to discuss performances when every actor is so absent of artifice. With only one recognizable name among them—Brady Corbet (2011's "Martha Marcy May Marlene"), in a small but memorable role that allows him to fully blend with his co-stars—the ensemble players seem to be existing as their characters in lieu of portraying scripted parts. Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli feel like a legitimate married couple as Tomas and Ebba, their longstanding bond and mounting disconnect reverberating with uncompromised frankness. Kuhnke delivers the necessary guarded nuances of a guy whose tarnished masculinity is but a magnifying glass to all his other mistakes and shortcomings. Kongsli brings steep emotional complexities to a woman who cannot help but reassess all that she thought she knew about her spouse. Yes, Tomas' actions were spontaneous, unplanned and lasted mere seconds, but the implications of such are incalculably vast. As daughter Vera and son Harry, real-life siblings Clara Wettergren and Vincent Wettergren are guileless wonders, so unforced in their interactions with each other and their on-screen parents it is a challenge to comprehend that the four of them aren't an actual family.

"Force Majeure" is stunningly lensed by cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel, he and writer-director Ruben Östlund bringing painstaking detail to the geography of their enticing setting and the day-to-day activities within a high-end cliffside luxury ski resort. Wenzel's immersive frame tracks the family's path across moving walkways, up and down the ravishing halcyon slopes, and through the impeccably hyper-modern hotel (exterior filming reportedly took place in British Columbia and on location in the French Alps, while interiors were shot at Sweden's lush Copperhill Mountain Lodge). Meanwhile, cannons forever fire in the distance and snow machines traverse the twinkling nighttime vistas in their quest to artificially perfect the vacation spot's advertised vision of paradise. The intended message is that nothing bad could possibly happen in a place like this, but of course that's far from accurate.

"Force Majeure" richly stacks one pleasure on top of the next. It is mature and perceptive and deeply moving, but its sly, razor-edged comedic bent is simultaneously on point, brilliantly blurring the lines between painful and painfully droll. Every image radiates with glacial beauty and virtuosic metaphoric symbolism. As all great art should, the film is destined to provoke serious discussions and passionate debates among viewers. Perhaps because these characters' specific quandaries are a departure from more familiar movie conflicts and tropes, there is increased novelty in audiences being confronted by "what-if" questions they have likely never asked themselves. Tomas and Ebba have a great many issues to work out if there is any hope of repairing their relationship, while Vera and Harry are trapped helplessly in the middle, longing for things to go back to the way they were when they arrived at the resort. The picture's final ten minutes, taking the family into the eye of a stormy whiteout and then, slowly, back down to earth on a perilous bus ride along the mountain's treacherous bluffs, are staggering in the breadth of what is said and suggested without precious little being uttered at all. Whether they realize it or not, Tomas and Ebba are rendered one in the same as their friends and vacationing day-player acquaintances existing on the periphery, a flawed and fallible cluster of humanity unified by their shared resilience and lack of answers. "Force Majeure" is a blistering, ultimately empathetic tour de force.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman