Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: "Force Majeure"

Director: Ruben Ostlund
Runtime: 118 minutes

If you're thinking of going on a ski trip with a significant other soon, then perhaps it's best to hold off on seeing Force Majeure until you get back (hopefully in one peace). After seeing Sweden's official submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, that trip to Boulder or Aspen isn't going to look like the best idea. Director Ruben Ostlund, in his fourth feature, has created an often beautiful-looking film, but the scenic backdrops of the Swiss Alps come with a price that's both acidly funny and brutally uncomfortable. We kicked off October with Gone Girl, a stylish mystery that was also a the perfect anti-date movie. Though quite different in set up, Force Majeure is a great way to end the month; it's the perfect Omega to Gone Girl's Alpha.

Ostlund's previous three films have all dealt with people facing tense situations, but in Force Majeure, he's able to poke and prod at that most sacred source of right-wing comfort: the nuclear family. The opening scene literally positions Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Kongsli), and their two children as a picture perfect family. On a five day ski trip in Switzerland, they're undergoing heavy coaching from a photographer as they pose against the towering mountainside and immaculate powder. Sure, it's a bit of an annoyance, but hey, at least we'll get some cute family pictures, right?

Unity is the initial defining trait of the well-to-do Swedish quartet. They ride the ski lift quenue together, all sleep in the same cozy bed, and even brush their teeth together on four identical electric toothbrushes. They were basically made to be in an Ikea catalogue. Sure, Tomas has a habit of working too hard (early on, Ebba teases him about checking his iPhone), but the first day on the slopes proves to be exactly what they need.

Unfortunately for the family (a surname is never given), the mountains have other things in store. In what has become the film's signature shot since its premiere at Cannes, everyone watches a controlled avalanche on a perfectly situated open-air restaurant. It looks as picture perfect as the opening photo session, until it gets a bit bigger and appears to be heading straight for the the spectators. Turns out, it's a false alarm, but too much has already been set in motion. While Ebba does her best to grab the kids, Tomas pulls a George Costanza, and takes off on his own, knocking over others along the way. Everyone is understandably shaken-up about the incident, but they get through the rest of the day perfectly fine. Until the kids finally go to bed, and Ebba voices her concern about Tomas' actions.

What Force Majeure lacks in character backgrounds or motivations, in makes up for with increasingly intense in-the-moment verbal sparring. The immediate aftermath presents a bit of a lull, as the family (mostly Ebba) processes the event, but then the first dinner scene arrives and squirm-inducing disagreements drop Tomas and Ebba off on a perilously slippery slope. As the couple tries to explain what happened (Tomas denies the accusation that he ran away), Ostlund carefully chips away at his lovely little Ikea family. Ebba gets the spotlight first, and watching her trust in Tomas crumble is when Force Majeure starts to deliver. Both actors are excellent, and his shift in perspective across the film's two hours gives the film a well-rounded, increasingly awkward, sense of characterization. At first, it seems like only Kongsli is going to really get to dig into her role, but the shift to Tomas (the accused) is handled seamlessly over the course of a double date dinner scene that oh-so-lightly tips its hat to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

With Tomas knocked down off of his pedestal as the presumed protector and provider, Ostlund's sly subversion of gender roles really starts to give Force Majeure its unique edge. Struggling spouses aren't anything new, but the hypothetical quality is a source of the film's bursts of caustic humor. The film's second half positions itself as the story of a man trying to reclaim his his title as head of the house, but Ostlund's endgame is more than just a war of the sexes. The most important scene of the film, involving one character's blatant emotional manipulation of others, is but a pyrrhic victory. Balance is restored, but only on the surface. Ostlund's conclusion is able to come full circle without taking an accidental, sexist step backwards.

Despite the cramped spaces and tense dialogue scenes, Ostlund's visuals are equally informative. The ski lift queue, first seen as just another passage, becomes a cramped, suffocating space when revisited. Everyone is sneaking looks at each other, trying to gauge what Tomas' move would be in the face of another potential disaster. The picturesque ski resort starts taking on a menacing quality, it's ultra modern log cabin aesthetic becoming less comforting with each passing scene. The resort may not be Switzerland's answer to the Overlook Hotel, but it doesn't exactly offer solace or warmth. The rumblings of nearby explosions - set to cause more controlled avalanches - create a perfect natural soundtrack for the film's emotional escalation.

For all of the film's tightly-wound conversations, Force Majeure is still a beautiful looking film. Stellar photography captures the sleek drabness of the hotel, as well as the overwhelming size and majesty of the mountains. A sequence with Tomas and his friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju, also wonderful) enjoying a guy's day on the slopes demonstrates that Ostlund is as talented at framing shots as he is dissecting his characters under a microscope. Interior visuals have great fun playing with space, as in one very funny conversation between Mats and his girlfriend in a narrow elevator. The repeated musical cue, from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, serves as a sinisterly funny marker of the passage of time. Editing is elegant and simple, and keeps the story moving along as smooth as a brand new Maserati (or rather, Volvo).

In a year with so many wonderful accomplishments, it's hard to believe that there's room left for something to grab hold on one's attention. Force Majeure may not have Boyhood's structural conceit or Birdman's simulated single shot, but it brings a completeness to the table that has eluded so many of 2014's very best films. Ostlund's ability with tone and pacing (not to mention his actors) is never less than outstanding. The subject matter may be wince-inducing, but the execution is so graceful that looking away is never an option. That is, unless you're still planning on taking that ski trip.

Grade: A

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