A nuclear family stands atop a snow-capped peak, waiting to have its portrait taken amidst the breathtaking Swiss Alps. Blunderingly, father Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), daughter Vera (Clara Wettergren) and son Harry (Vincent Wettergren) struggle to arrange themselves. Fortunately, the grinning photographer soon comes to their aid, quickly engineering the ideal portrait. The result is a carefully staged image, one that ultimately evokes the distance of actors immersed in their respective roles, rather than the kinship of loving family members. This “theatrical production” of a family is the subject of Ruben Östlund’s latest contemplative powerhouse, the violently ambitious though ultimately unsatisfying “Force Majeure.”
“Force Majeure,” Sweden’s official entry for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, examines the rapid disintegration of this family unit following a frightening, though ultimately innocuous, seemingly near-death experience. On holiday at an opulent ski lodge, Tomas, Ebba, Vera and Harry witness a controlled avalanche that, in its approach, appears both catastrophic in size and force. This impending hazard ignites a primal fear in Tomas, who rapidly swipes his gloves and iPhone before abandoning his family. Ebba, by contrast, immediately moves to protect Harry and Vera, grabbing hold of her children and calling out to Tomas, as the advancing smoke envelopes the surrounding area. When the dust – both literal and metaphorical – finally settles, Tomas’s cowardice and Ebba’s selflessness generate a rift between the pair that, as the film progresses, threatens to consume them both.
The first half of “Force Majeure,” tackles the direct ramifications of Tomas’s split-second abandonment, and it is here that Östlund succeeds most. A master of tension building, Östlund makes frequent use of mounted camera shots, which, in turn, lend a certain restraint and nerve-racking stasis to his exploration of Tomas’s selfishness and its consequences. During a vibrant dinner sequence, for example, Östlund trains his camera on the forlorn Tomas. Even when Ebba appears behind Tomas, Östlund refuses to re-frame the image to encompass Ebba’s full form, cutting off her head in the process. Like a documentarian, Östlund prefers to immerse himself in a lone perspective, underscoring the absence of character movement and meticulously constructing anticipation. In sum, he is not afraid to let the image fester, and the result is a simmering stagnancy, full of potential energy but grounded in the stationary present.
This charged stasis, in turn, generates an exhilarating atmosphere of impending doom – expertly accentuated by the film’s haunting orchestral score and thundering soundtrack – as if, at any given moment, the film could crack and shatter into a thousand microscopic shards. In this regard, the first hour of “Force Majeure” achieves a level of toxic volatility, expertly building to an explosive midpoint eruption, which proves to be both incredibly satisfying and deeply disturbing. Unfortunately, this midpoint is also where the film begins to fall apart, for as Tomas and Ebba collapse, so does “Majeure.”
“Force Majeure” is, first and foremost, a film about character arcs; however, in hour two, Ostlund pushes Tomas and Ebba to change so dramatically that, by film’s end, they are merely preposterous caricatures of their former selves. Tomas, a man who, until the film’s final act fights to maintain every scrap of dignity that he can, ends the film sobbing uncontrollably in his underwear – a scene of comeuppance so overwrought it’s cringeworthy. And Ebba, a woman who in the first hour would do anything to protect her children, abandons them in the film’s final minutes with little ceremony and even less reason.
In many ways “Force Majeure” strives to be comic satire, tearing down its protagonists as a channel for social commentary. Yet, by the film’s end, the whole affair feels so utterly ludicrous that it instead reads as unamusing farce: when exiting a stopped bus one character frantically proclaims “women and children first!” as if trapped aboard the ill-fated Titanic. Östlund’s images do not lampoon and lambaste. Instead, they inspire incredulity and disbelief. Östlund may be laughing, but we, the audience, are too busy mourning the loss of rationality to laugh along with him.
Force Majeure opens on November 7 at The Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and on November 14 at The Aquarius Theatre in Palo Alto.
Contact Will Ferrer at wferrer ‘at’ stanford.edu.