by Sin Popena
Force Majeure (2014) dir. Ruben Ostlund
Over the decades Sweden has churned out some pretty impressive directors, ranging from iconic and poetic Ingmar Bergman to strange and cynical Roy Andersson. A fairly new player on the scene is director Ruben Ostlund, who started off in the 90s by making ski videos and has recently released his fourth feature film – highly acclaimed ‘Force Majeure’ (won Sweden’s top film prize at the 50th Guldbagge Awards). Considering his already impressive oeuvre and accumulating accolades (including a triumph at Cannes), he’s a director to watch out for.
‘Force Majeure’ is a tour de force – an incredibly powerful, yet subtle exploration of a family’s internal dynamics and how they change after a traumatic event. The film starts with a seemingly innocent shot of a family on a ski holiday getting their photo taken, but already a sense of unease pervades. The way the family awkwardly embrace each other and pose for the camera reveals an underlying tension.
Early on in the movie the pivotal incident occurs – an avalanche nearly ruins their Ikea-picture-perfect luncheon – and the entire family is shaken up. Wife Ebba (Lisa Kongsli) begins slowly resenting her husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) for his perceived inadequate reaction during the moment of crisis. At the dinner table she makes fun of him publicly in front of another couple, causing the situation to become more awkward than if someone had just mentioned the merits of Finland’s ice-hockey team. While the dialogue remains restrained, Ostland uses clever compositions to reveal characters’ true feelings. In fact, all the shots in the film are perfectly choreographed to the trajectory of the family’s relationship.
Ostlund’s experience making ski videos is evident in the movie, as the mountain is a character in itself. Shiny and polished, the way we expect it to be when we go on holiday, it can become sublime and dangerous in a second. The mountain’s man-induced ‘controlled’ avalanches, eerily represented by constant far-off booming noises, become a metaphor for human behavior. Can nature – whether scenic or humanistic – ever be controlled or is that an illusion to make us feel safe?
In its essence, the film is really about a contemporary problem, which still seems rather taboo- the ‘crisis of masculinity’. Ebba expects Tomas to go into Viking mode when his family is at risk, but Tomas is more comfortable grabbing his Iphone than his imaginary axe. Even Tomas’ physically rugged friend Mats, played by Kristofer Hivju (that viking-looking-guy from Game of Thrones) gets belittled by his 20-year-old girlfriend. The female characters in the film are strong, though often scornfully so, and the male characters’ ‘manliness’ is under attack. Ostlund, with black humor that never becomes fully comic, creates an interesting satire of what is expected of a man in modern Swedish society.
There’s a really potent scene in which the two fellas sit in an apres-ski outdoors bar and they’re approached by an attractive woman, who says her friend thinks Tomas is the best-looking guy there. Cue: victorious music and a restoration of pride! But alas, the woman returns shortly claiming she made a mistake. The compliment was meant for someone else. She apologises – profusely. And the film rapidly falls back into its default tone – awkwardness.
Ostlund is incredibly perceptive, and the subtle implications of seemingly basic scenes come together to make a forceful movie. There is a distance from the characters (something Hollywood movies never attempt) that allows the audience to observe and make their own conclusions. I highly, highly recommend this movie for mature cinema-goers.
p.s. Watch it on the big screen if you can. The cinematography is epic.
(Verdict: 4 stars)