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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: Force Majeure (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Ruben Ostlund
Starring: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli

What does it mean if, in a moment of crisis, you are revealed to be something less than what you thought you were, less than what you were expected to be? Where do you go from there, and what sort of lasting repercussions will that have? Ruben Ostlund's Force Majeure is about such an event, one which results in a family being pushed to the brink, and with the very concept of "manhood" itself being thoroughly dismantled. Force Majeure is a potent and well executed character-based drama, and sometimes a surprisingly (and darkly) funny comedy. Why it failed to make the final cut for the Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film category is a mystery to me since the film hits so many of the targets it aims for, but then again the category is well known for its glaring omissions, so Force Majeure will simply join the ever growing list of wonderful non-English language films overlooked by AMPAS.

The couple at the center of Force Majeure are Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) who, along with their two children, have come to a luxury resort in the French Alps for a family ski vacation. First seen posing together on the slopes for a photographer, they are the very image of middle class aspiration: young, beautiful, shiny, happy. The image holds for the first day of the holiday and then, on the second, shatters. As they sit on a patio having lunch, snow begins tumbling down the mountain towards them, and Tomas assures the family that it's a controlled avalanche and there's nothing to be concerned about. After a moment, however, it begins to look as though the avalanche is not controlled after all and as the snow continues to bear down and everyone around them panics, Ebba rushes to protect the children and Tomas... runs away. A thick fog settles over the patio and when it lifts, it reveals that everything really was fine and as Ebba settles the children back into their seats, Tomas finally comes back and the four try to carry on as if nothing has happened. Beneath the pretense though (and not very far), Ebba has begun to question the very foundation of her relationship with Tomas, questioning whether she really knows him at all and what sort of person he really is.

The tightly packed tension begins to spill out when Ebba and Tomas go out to dinner with another couple and recount their adventure at lunch time, relating it as a sort of funny anecdote at first until Ebba, realizing that Tomas not only ran away but won't admit that he did so even to himself, begins picking at the scab, becoming more accusatory with every sentence. The next day she asks to have the day to herself so that she can ski on her own and the solitude only seems to solidify her alienation from Tomas, even though they have agreed to a truce, of sorts, and made an agreement about the "official" story regarding the avalanche. However, when they are joined at the resort by their friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his much younger girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius), Ebba can't help herself from unloading her feelings about what happened, challenging Tomas when he tries to pass off her version as being merely her "perception" of the event and not necessarily the truth, and systematically breaking down his excuses. Their relationship is now on the brink, but after having witnessed the discussion, so too is the relationship between Mats and Fanni after she makes an off-handed comment comparing Mats and Tomas. It isn't just Tomas' manhood which is threatened by his behavior on the patio, but the manhood of his entire generation of men.

As written and directed by Ostlund, Force Majeure is a film which sometimes swings wildly (though effectively) between extremes. It can go from being quite funny to being really dark and sad within the span of a few seconds, such as a scene in which Tomas makes a show of apologizing to Ebba for his behavior only for her to point out that he's only pretending to cry and him to admit as much, and then for him to really breakdown in a way which is, at first, so over the top that it's almost funny and then just becomes sort of scary. That sudden shift speaks to how the film deals generally with the subject at hand - it is, on one level, very silly that the characters approach the issue the way that they do because ultimately Tomas running and Ebba staying have nothing to do with the former being a man and the latter being a woman, it's just a matter of how each of them reacted to that particular situation; on another level, though, it's something that has devastating consequences because it completely undermines Tomas' conception of himself as a man as well as Ebba's conception of him as same. Notions of what makes a "man" and what makes a "woman" might be constructs (as carefully crafted in society as those pictures the family is seen posing for at the beginning of the film, the photographer so exact that he's directing them on everything right down to how to put their arms around each other) but they still exist and are the things to which so much about personal identity is rooted. To discover how illusory the concept of manhood is at such an inopportune time, to have that not just stripped away from his identity but to then be confronted by it over and over again, causes Tomas to completely unravel in a way that is often riveting to watch.

Force Majeure walks a fine line, committing itself to being an exacting character study while still maintaining a relatively light touch which allows the moments of comedy to flow through it. It is a well-observed character piece, as entertaining as it is intentionally cringe-inducing. As the couple at the center of the story, Kuhnke and Kongsli deliver strong performances which work beautifully together to provide a foundation for the couple's relationship which makes the collapse seem particularly meaningful and makes the resolution seem particularly fitting. While an argument can certainly be made that the film amounts to little more than "White People Problems: The Movie," given that nothing bad "really" happens to them (their "tragedy" is one in which no one dies or is physically harmed and they emerge as young, beautiful, and financially secure as they were beforehand), it is nevertheless so good at what it's doing that that hardly matters. Force Majeure is a great and compelling film.

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