FORCE MAJEURE (2014)
reviewed by Audy Elliott
– Tomas' wife, Ebba
Icy, quirky, tense, peculiar, vapid, passive aggressive, sly, unassumingly brilliant, suffocating
Great usage of film space
Subtle tension and mood
Attractive framed scenes/composition
Amusing study of passive aggression among relationships
Smart writing delivered by philosophical dialog
A few nonsensical plot points/scenes
Decent, not great ending
WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT
This wickedly funny and precisely observed psychodrama tells the story of a model Swedish family - handsome businessman Tomas, his willowy wife, Ebba, and their two blond, pre-teen children - on a skiing holiday in the French Alps. The sun is shining and the slopes are spectacular but, during lunch at a mountainside restaurant, an avalanche turns everything upside down. With panicked diners fleeing in all directions, Ebba calls out for her husband as she tries to protect their children. Tomas, however, makes a decision that will shake the family's world to its core. Although the anticipated disaster fails to occur, his marriage now hangs in the balance as he struggles to reclaim his role as family patriarch.
This movie is a satirical look at marriage and how something that occurs within its foundation at an innocuous treble can reverberate stronger under each passing minute between spouses no matter how big or trivial the point of contention could be. Unresolved issues in a marriage, as highlighted from director Ruben Östlund, can jar open already lingering tiny cracks in any relationship’s foundation. Here Tomas, by all accounts, didn’t do anything atrocious against the sanctity of his vows in an obvious way: he didn’t cheat on his wife with another woman, he didn’t lose his job, nor is he an alcoholic or a greasy obnoxious womanizer – he is just inattentive and rudimentary in his selfishness which harms against his family, but most importantly towards his harping wife. Östlund is fascinated with theoretical sociology, especially when applied to situations when people, specifically Tomas, react against a pending crisis in a way that is socially uncharacteristic of how a person should act based upon their gender norms. Tomas, for the better part, establishes everything a man should in providing for the family; patriarchal duties are ever present when helping his children ski, or agreeing with his wife to go on a double date with the promiscuous fellow tourist and her boy toy. He is affable, but vacant, to the casual observer. Frankly the snow outside has more vivid personality in its unassuming opaque white blanketing the horizon but like the snow, Tomas’ cerebral persona can be accessible with the film leaving its tracks onto his psyche by way of his detracting pressure of failed matrimonial responsibility.
What stood out to me the most is how the film portrays itself with a heightened level of passive aggression. Nothing in the film screams confrontational at first glance. The characters only rely on its confrontations when left with no choice. Take for instance, when Tomas and Ebba, in a brief moment of unity, decide to not wake up the children, go out in the long tangerine hotel hallway to air out their frustrations to one another (or primarily Ebba dog chewing Tomas’ ear off) that has been long overdue. Ebba, after Tomas’ request, decides to light a firecracker of guilt in his direction. Tomas, standing there passively, arms crossed, postured only in his fitted baby blue muscle T-shirt and Black boxer briefs weakly receives all of Ebba’s vehement rage as the hotel’s custodian is sitting there watching it unfold on the next level up without a concern of being caught. Tomas’ passive aggression turns immediately to misplaced tepid confrontation towards the eerie onlooker. Tomas tries to exert himself, and his manhood, but fails again calling into question if it ever really existed, leaving Ebba to effectively request the man to keep it moving, which he ostensibly agrees to do under his cloud of cigarette smoke. Östlund delivers this scene to a pitch perfect moment while also exhibiting the complexities of psychological behavior and how it shapes a person, or people in a typical setting by suffocating the family and other tourists through ineptitudes flagged by forced company within the lavish resort. Cabin fever is felt, but not in its typical meaning. Tomas and Ebba aren’t bounded or constricted indoors, nor trapped in the interior linings of its French accommodations – they are unfortunately trapped with one another; Östlund accentuates this by gifting the screen utilizing slight camera movements, framing his scenes slightly off center and not allowing for any expressive action. By doing this Östlund heightens the tension by paralleling the movie’s tone to match the characters emotions. Its done harmoniously giving way to a unifying experience of what the movie is expressing without having to verbalize its intentions to a pandering malady of the audience’s goodwill.
Östlund not only directed Force Majeure, but also wrote it leaving his soul within every line, every scene and every filmic characteristic. It’s apparent that Östlund knows what he is dealing with regarding the subject matter, and with that comes an authenticity in how Tomas treats the situation, and how it treats him. Submerged within the depths of its humanity, humor delivers a much needed counter punch to not only set up the ridiculous nature of the film, but also dividing his own personal feelings between the movie’s tone (flat, demanding, non-responsive) representational of a mixture of Ebba and Tomas’ emotional state of being towards one other and how through Östlund’s comedic quirky delivery the film denotes how one person may feel towards the other’s discontentment over an arguable slight that may be silly to Tomas but deathly serious to Ebba. Östlund masterfully creates this context, not allowing the viewer to search for anything else. The character’s internal thoughts and feelings may be open to interpretation and dissection, but the mood and tone of the film is definitely not. Humor finds its way throughout the film, in transition scenes of intense violin strings of impending doom for a startling affect - not to threaten but to take you a back in a surprisingly offbeat goofy manner. Östlund, however, sinisterly leaves you unbalanced by cutting into the next frame of the family loading onto a ski lift with a banality in tricking you to overlook its efficaciousness. It’s effective in its usage of establishing an irreverent wit to interplay with the tenuous chemistry between both leads, as to support the notion that something damaging is brimming within the marriage no matter how much of a brave face the family puts on to enjoy its thankless vacation. There is continual vapidity that encompasses the environment of the French Ski Resort. Östlund presents frames slyly but inhabiting a “less is more” approach. It’s more practical to show no emotion in the scenes, in the characters and also in the terrain of the beautiful window dressing around the hotel. Established close ups in the beginning of the film featuring loud booming canons jut out bellowing seismic sounds to stimulate the snow to create slopes for the skiers, are placed continuously to add an ominous thematic residual effect later on in the film. Östlund uses it as a device to keep the audience from feeling too comfortable in the film’s serenity to where when moments of genuine mettle is used to punch up the drama thereby holding the audience’s attention. This movie never wants you to feel completely comfortable, completely relaxed. It detracts the notion of being on vacation, just because the characters and it setting is on vacation, when In fact it’s the opposite. The audience is here to work. We are studying for the final exam, and Östlund intends to quiz us by the end of the movie – hence it’s peculiar open ending. This is what makes this picture intelligent: it falsifies its narrative intent to the characters by allowing the viewer to be in on the movie’s true meaning. Time is being manipulated. You presume that the family is on a week’s vacation, but you really don’t get a definite answer of what day it is or what day just passed. Time is irrelevant with this movie, because the motif of time would only fasten the contents within the frame which goes against the very essence of what Östlund is trying to capture in the stillness. He wants the film to make you just as stir crazy as his characters had become. With the diminished usage of calculable time, the movie is forcing Tomas and Ebba to have a resolution one way or another, forcibly wielding its power over them to a place of an over welcomed theme of foreshadowed confrontation.
Tomas, played by little known Swede actor Johannes Kuhnke, demonstrates a sympathetic, yet enigmatically pathetic man. Kuhnke, is genial, well groomed, but he’s not all there: sure he’s physically present, but he’s pretty much an empty wobbly chair for company’s sake. Östlund doesn’t really explore what his internal void is, or why Tomas reacted the way that he did. Was it an habitual act? Was it the first time he ever demonstrated this kind of cowardice? Did he finally decide this is my way out? These answers are never established, only presented in a straight forward yet beguiling manner. I was never frustrated by the lack of answers as much as intrigued by the gamut of evidence presented against him. I didn’t need confirmation as to where he was coming from or not coming from, I had Ebba to thank for that display of reactionary anger. I was more inserted in the my fascination of how both characters were going to come out on the other side of this conflict once this vacation is over. There is likability to Kunhke’s portrayal. He isn’t a cad as much as he is “caddish” at times, but he is really not a bad guy, just a bad husband and father, and unfortunately for Tomas that is how a man in his situation is judged. You want him to come up with a response to his laughable dastardly reaction in the beginning of the film, but he can’t. It’s apparent he is searching for the answer, but he either doesn’t have one, or can’t come up with one. Either way it’s not a good look. It’s obvious to any onlooker that he isn’t going to come out of this in any favorable light, and when he “mea culpas” himself, clinging woefully onto Ebba’s pajama bottoms, it’s still done in an emotionally forced manner which he can’t even get right or apologize in a convicted manner to where Ebba is satisfactorily convinced. Ebba doesn’t know what to do with him. She is stuck with this man. It’s apparent to the audience why these two work well even though they both don’t see it. She is the dominant, assertive, take action partner in the relationship – he is the opposite. She isn’t upset that he is who he is, as much as she is pissed on who he is at that moment. She wants something out of him that he cannot possibly provide, and with that comes her consternation.
The complexities of the screenwriting and screenplay are maybe the best I have seen this whole year thus far. The director knows how to make obvious to the audience the film’s underlining issues without having to spoon-feed them. In one scene, Tomas and Ebba, have over a fellow tourist Swedish couple that at first glance seems to be a fine evening amongst adults. What turns from relaxed acquaintances and pleasantries becomes an inquisition directed from Ebba to Tomas, with the unsuspecting couple stuck in the middle like Malcolm. The man, feeling sorry for Tomas, tries to explain in his best reassured but ass-backward way of why Tomas reacted the way that he did during the opening scene’s avalanche. Ebba is not convinced, and neither is the man’s girlfriend. So now our good compatriot is also boiling like a red bearded Norse lobster in hot water. Later, in the following humorous scene, the couple in bed is now arguing, with the girlfriend questioning the boyfriend’s virtue, by judging him that he would probably do the same as Tomas, since he tried “rationalize” Tomas’ behavior, when all the boyfriend was innocently trying to do was shed some light on the situation. The correct answer my man is that there isn’t one to justify what Tomas’ did. Human condition has never been this easily understood and vastly dissected and showcased in any movie that I have seen in quite sometime. You comprehend the magnitude of the circumstances of the film with each character, each framed scene, with the way the film overall speaks to a pervasive realism in large part due to the depth the screenplay and Östlund’s remarkable ability to execute it from script to screen.
Wonderful opening scene – the scene of the crime if you will – "Papa! Papa! Papa!" screams his daughter as the ferocious avalanche comes thundering down the slopes changing the course of the film’s story to irrevocable uncertainty. Notice the movement in the scene. Notice how immediately Östlund sets the farcical tone, with a mix of dread and bemusement from the point of view of Tomas. Here you see what he does and doesn’t do, and the repercussions of his inabilities. The French waiter asks off camera, after the snow dust settles “are you okay?” Oh frenchie, you don’t know the half of it. Tomas comes back as if nothing happened, but Ebba sees all she needs to. The genius of this scene is the Tomas’ lack of self awareness beginning with telling his kids that the avalanche is created on purpose and not to be scared (as everyone around them is scurrying to leave) then only to come back and deny what Ebba and everyone else sees what he did – and we still find ourselves still kind of feeling sorry for him when he sure as hell doesn’t deserve it.
I was happy when I saw this movie. It was high on my list of films to see this year, and it delivered by all accounts. It is excellent in its usage of smart writing, careful dialog and three dimensional characters. Östlund, a director prior to this movie, has never been on my radar, and his direction and visual touch is deft and sublime. He never over does it with this film to prove his filmmaking merits. He, unlike Tomas, is very self-assured in his ability. He won’t overpower you with caustic imagery or film school techniques. His effectiveness is knowing how to package a subject close to him, and deliver it, virtually in every aspect a film can give without being overly apparent or abundant of its own relevance into studying the thoughtlessness of human behavior. He chooses to neither explain or judge this, just admires his characters like a good Mike Nichols’ movie would but Östlund purposefully adds the European self-mocking depreciation that only added to the film’s greatness. Funny, atmospherically well shot, with a natural sense of touch, this film bravely demonstrates that it can turn the most innocent of situations on top of its head like a directionless skier down the very French Alps on the film’s location. Force Majeure, like the sliding intimidating avalanche, and the gust of psycho-bullcrap that metaphorically follows, is ultimately a force to be reckoned with.
3.5 out of 4