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Non-Review Review: Downhill

Earlier this year, Parasite became the first non-English language film to win the Best Picture Oscar.

This was a landmark moment for the Academy Awards and for mainstream American cinema in general. It was significant enough in cultural terms to merit a racist dog-whistle from the President of the United States. It also suggested that it was possible for foreign films to make over the “one inch barrier of subtitles.” The film’s box office returns were impressive, and its cultural footprint quite sizable. Parasite seemed to make its own strong argument for the viability of foreign-language films in the English-language market place.

Passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage…

Downhill makes a similar argument, albeit in much less compelling terms. The indie cringe comedy is an adaptation of Ruben Östlund’s breakout foreign language sensation Force Majeure, premised on the idea that there are audience members who might be drawn to the basic premise of the original film, but alienated by the subtitles. Indeed, Östlund himself seems to have acknowledged this, moving on to more English-language-friendly pastures with The Square, a film with a lot of dialogue in English and starring actors like Dominic West and Elizabeth Moss.

Downhill makes its own argument for the necessity of Force Majeure, by demonstrating just how much can get lost in translation.

Cold reception.

To be fair to Downhill, the film obviously has a lot of reverence for Force Majeure. Not only is the basic premise carried over and certain sequences slavishly imitated, but the film makes a big deal of casting Kristofer Hivju in what amounts to an extended cameo, trusting the actor to serve as something of an ambassador between the two versions of the same story. Downhill declines to cast Hivju in the same role that he played in Force Majeure, but his presence and the deference that the film pays to his presence, exists very much as a statement of good will.

The film even opens with characters speaking languages other than English, in a nod to its origins as a “foreign” film. Downhill is commendably upfront about its relationship to Force Majeure, and there’s a great deal of affection for the original to be found in Downhill. Indeed, the film even feels like something of an apology for itself, aware that its key target market is film fans who would never watch Force Majeure because it is primarily in Swedish.

Not exactly peak performance.

Indeed, Force Majeure should lend itself to adaptation. It remains one of the most incisive and pointed criticisms of twenty-first century masculinity committed to film, a piercing study of the ego and insecurity of men who reach a certain age – the anxieties and the yearning that drives them, and the ways in which these impulses impugn them. It’s a film that has aged remarkably well in the years since its release, a tale of desperation and folly that resonates on a much broader level than it did in 2016. So a lot of that should easily carry over into an English language adaptation.

However, there are two major problems with Downhill as an adaptation of a black comedy with a very European sensibility. The first is that American cinema – particularly awards fare cinema – is often reluctant to commit to the sort of cynicism that European films take for granted. America can produce its share of black comedies, but rarely in the shape of movies that seem designed to work the awards circuit in the way that Downhill does. There’s a reluctance to commit to the sheer cynicism of human nature that many of these films take for granted.

A couple of problems.

This difference is pronounced even in supposedly “feel good” films. The Intouchables garnered a fair amount of criticism for dealing with its subject matter in a flippant way, but it was a gritty and ground example of social realism when compared with The Upside. However, that difference in approach becomes much more pronounced when dealing with darker films. Force Majeure is hilarious, but it is also incredible bleak in its portrait of modern masculinity. Downhill simply lacks that level of commitment.

This creates a strange imbalance between tone and content. Downhill faithful replicates a number of key scenes from Force Majeure, most notably an extended sequence in which an argument between a married couple spills out into a conversation with friends and then comes to involve their two young children. The sequence is deeply unsettling, because it demonstrates just how much damage has been done to the relationship at the centre of the film. In Force Majeure, it feels like part of the film. In Downhill, it jars with the more chipper tone.

Picture imperfect.

Downhill is a consciously broader film than Force Majeure. It’s tempting to credit this to the casting of Will Ferrell in the lead role, but that’s not fair. Like many comedians, Ferrell has actually done a reasonable amount of work to demonstrate his dramatic range. It is easy to imagine a film like Force Majeure working with Ferrell in the lead role, playing off the actor’s inherent contradictions; his childlike energy with his towering height, his impressive physicality with his motor mouth. However, Downhill is no Foxcatcher or Uncut Gems.

This gets at the second problem with Downhill, in that it is a translated comedy that becomes itself about the act of translation. The film retains the European setting of Force Majeure, but instead focuses on an American family. As a result, there is always an additional layer of contrast between the central characters and the world in which they find themselves. There’s a lot of broad and goofy jokes about the perceived cultural differences between Europeans and Americans, which feel like they were all lifted from a mediocre stand-up set in the late eighties.

Measure of last resort.

Meeting the ski resort’s health and safety manager after a scare, Billie and Pete immediately jump to threatening legal action for negligence; they are stereotypical boorish Americans abroad. On arriving at the resort, Billie and Pete find themselves both fascinated and repulsed by the customer service manager Charlotte, who is open and candid about both her sex life and the need for others to be open about their sex lives; she is a stereotypically sexually liberal European, and they are prudish Americans. Charlotte is, somewhat inexplicably, played by Miranda Otto.

As a result, everything in Downhill becomes just a little bit cartoonish and exaggerated, just a little bit distended. It undercuts the film’s awkward attempts to treat Pete and Billie’s marriage as something in which the audience might invest. Downhill treats its characters like broadly drawn cartoons, but then awkward pivots towards flashes of psychological realism. The results are frustrating and disjointed.

Downhill is a bad film, but a compelling argument for watching foreign-language cinema. Force Inférieure.

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