Tuesday, November 4, 2014
Force Majeure (***)
Written and Directed by Ruben Ostlund
A movie like Force Majeure puts the audience in a pretty precarious position. Like the American film Compliance from 2012, Majeure presents us with a situation and we watch as a character makes a split decision that effects several people. We'd like to think if we were put in the same situation, we'd do the right thing, but movies like Force Majeure put us face-to-face with the reality that perhaps we are not the heroes we'd like to think of ourselves as. The movie is directed by Ruben Ostlund, and the film has been chosen as Sweden's submission to the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film award. I can understand why. It seems to be a great representation of Swedish filmmaking: modest but striking, harsh but funny. The talons of the country's most important film director, Ingmar Bergman, are all over this particular film. The shots are expertly framed but completely without movement, all of the space is flat, each image creating it's own still frame unto itself. But the core of Force Majeure is the conflict between in its characters. In this case, we have a married couple with two young children trying to enjoy a vacation at a skiing resort in the French Alps. Things are already on the fritz between the two parents, but a single moment tips their sour feelings over the edge.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) is a busy career man whose wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) drags him along for a five-day vacation with their two children Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren) in a fancy ski resort. Tomas is discouraged to even look at his phone when it starts to buzz. On the second day of their trip, they sit in the hotel restaurant on an outdoor balcony with an extraordinary view of the ski slopes. Explosions goes off periodically for controlled avalanches that keep the slopes smooth. When the family sees a violent funnel of snow heading straight for their balcony table, the children become frightened, but Tomas assures them that it's controlled by the resort and totally safe. The snow keeps building and suddenly everybody sitting outside begins to get nervous. Tomas films the oncoming snow, but as a white haze begins to breach the floor of the balcony, everybody goes into full-on panic. Ebba grabs both of her children and calls out for her husband, but by this time, Tomas has grabbed his gloves and his iPhone and has vanished from sight. Ebba and the children are left to duck and cover on the balcony, the entire space covered in a blinding white haze.
Everyone is safe, it was only a harmless plume of smoke from the snow, and when Tomas returns to his family at the table, they all sit silently and go back to their lunch. But everything has changed at this point, as Tomas' true values are shined on harshly when met with a dangerous situation. Harry and Vera, already used to their parents' indifference toward each other turn to all out concern over the future of their marriage. Even at their young age, they can clearly see what is becoming of their two caretakers. Tomas is fine to just ignore the entire incident, but Ebba cannot get past Tomas' actions during their lunch. When Ebba brings up Tomas' cowardice during dinner with fellow vacationers, Tomas defiantly denies Ebba's version of the story, claiming that he never left the table. When Tomas' friend, Mats (Kristofer Hivju) visits the family with his young girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius), the post-dinner drink between friends turns into Ebba's soul-bearing scorching of Tomas' behavior during that fateful incident. In front of his wife and friends, Tomas hopelessly sticks to his false version of the story. His gutlessness in front of his family has ripple effects even with Mats and Fanni, as their discussion of Tomas and Ebba's situation turns into their on confrontation in their hotel room.
Force Majeure is an interesting tale of the twenty-first century straight white man, trying to play the usual masculine role in a time when the tenets of machismo have been meticulously devalued in a progressive atmosphere which finds value in everything but straight white males. No one is crying for straight white men, and neither is Ostlund's film, but it displays an interesting dilemma for men still expected to live up to certain gender norms while also hearing how little their particular gender matters. Tomas and Ebba are a conventional couple living in a very unconventional time. But Majeure does overstay its welcome at times, and while it presents a fascinating discussion of gender, it finds itself without very much to go once it makes its points clear halfway through. The film's blend of low brow comedy and tense domestic drama works superbly throughout, but the film meanders without much purpose on long takes within very static shots. It isn't hard to wonder why this film simply wasn't a half-hour shorter with all the extraneous images trimmed to a reasonable length. Force Majeure is going for a specific, lived-in aesthetic and I understand that. It works for the film's first half, which is taut and funny and understands which characters and plot points most pop. But the film's second hour has little purpose for long periods of time, and while the performances from Kuhnke and Longsli stay consistently terrific throughout, the film's final act nearly lets them down.