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Non-Review Review: Force Majeure

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

A blackly comic interrogation of modern masculinity, written and directed by Ruben Östlund, Force Majeure documents a family holiday that goes horribly and spectacularly wrong.

Following a nuclear family on their five-day ski holiday, Force Majeure examines the consequences of a fateful decision by the family patriarch. Dining on a restaurant on the upper levels of the resort, the family witness a controlled avalanche that quickly seems more and more uncontrolled. As a sea of white washes over the restaurant, Ebba tries to shield her children – while Tomas grabs his phone and his gloves and runs for cover, abandoning his wife and children to the elements.

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This sounds pretty bleak. However, Östlund shrewdly decides to play it as black comedy. He uses Tomas’ pretty spectacular failing as a jumping-off point into a number of delightfully uncomfortable sequences that manage to be both squirm-inducingly awkward and laugh-out-loud funny. For all the epic scale suggested by the movie’s one-line synopsis, Force Majeure is a rather more intimate piece of work. Two separate meltdowns over dinners with two different couples are arguably more catastrophic than any force of nature unleashed over the course of the narrative.

Force Majeure is a triumph, a stunning examination of a marriage under pressure.

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Throughout Force Majeure, Östlund keeps cutting back and forth from the daily operations of the ski resort. There are controlled avalanches, triggered by loud booms that sound in the background like distant thunder. There are automatically-operated ski lifts that don’t seem to require personnel at either end. There are snow plows that seem to move quietly in the night, forming unseen convoys clearing the slopes for another busy day. Lights pulse and strobe, even over otherwise empty terrain.

These sequences look beautiful, clearly establishing a sense of mood and place. The explosions fueling the controlled avalanches add a nicely apocalyptic atmosphere to an otherwise idyllic family retreat. However, they also allow Östlund to suggest the themes of the film. The ski resort is so thoroughly mechanised that there seems to be no real need for staff – indeed, the only really tangible human presence at the resort is a single janitor who seems just as much part of the routine; seeming to take his cigarette break at the same place and time every night.

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Perhaps this is what the marriage at the heart of Force Majeure has become – an entity more mechanical than organic. Tomas and Ebba seem to be largely going through the motions. It is implied that Tomas has not really found time for his family before the trip, and that Ebba might only stand by Tomas because that is what is expected of her. In a way, that is what makes Tomas’ behaviour so terrifying and so unsettling. He can go through the motions of being a loving father because that is what is expected; but he has difficulty responding to an unscripted event.

At points in Force Majeure, they seem more like business partners than lovers. They step outside into the resort’s hallway so as to get their story straight. “I want us to have a shared view,” Ebba explains to Tomas, who agrees that they need to agree a “unified front.” What begins as a heartfelt and emotional sequence with tears and hugs ends with a rather formal and arch handshake and dialogue that could easily have been lifted from the minutes of a business meeting. There is something quite heartbreaking in all that.

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Östlund’s script does great work felshing out the characters of Tomas and Ebba. Johannes Bah Kuhnke does great work playing Tomas as a man trapped in a crisis of modern masculinity, struggling to prove himself a capable man in the most shallow and self-centred manners possible. Indeed, much of the better comedy in Force Majeure comes from juxtaposing these attempts with Tomas’ truly pathetic nature. Ebba carries more dramatic weight, with the script seeming decidedly more sympathetic to her less externalised crisis. Lisa Kongsli is fantastic in the role.

Östlund’s script is razor sharp, but his direction is also crisp. Force Majeure looks stunning, with Östlund proving a master of frame construction and making the most of his striking surroundings. His shots are always set up in interesting ways, but never so that they feel distracting.  In particular, the sound department – overseen by Jérôme Aghion – deserve a great deal of credit for providing the film with a rich aural atmosphere. Force Majeure is a sterling production. Force Majeure is a triumph, and well worth seeking out.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 4

4 Responses

  1. Illuminating review, sounds like a really interesting film!

  2. Great review. Couldn’t agree with you more about the sound department, really cemented the film’s atmospheric drama.

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