Friday, July 28, 2017

Force Majeure (2014)

Turist, Sweden / France / Norway / Denmark, 120 minutes
Director/writer: Ruben Ostlund
Photography: Fredrik Wenzel
Music: Ola Flottum
Editor: Jacob Secher Schulsinger
Cast: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Brady Corbet

This was all new to me before I saw the movie, but "force majeure" turns out to be a term used in contract law. It's a common clause, according to Wikipedia, "that essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, or an event described by the legal term 'act of God' (hurricane, flood, earthquake, volcanic eruption, etc.), prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract."

You learn something new every day. In Force Majeure the extraordinary event or act of God is an avalanche, which occurs during the ski resort vacation of a middle-class Swedish family—husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two anxious children. It's a strange and insistently particular premise, but you know how it goes with movies—there was one from a few years earlier, The Loneliest Planet, that turned on a similar response to a similar remarkable incident. That incident and response occur in the first 12 minutes of Force Majeure (a bit further into The Loneliest Planet) but as a matter of form I'm issuing a spoiler alert now because I'm talking about it next.

On the second day of their ski vacation our family is enjoying a breakfast at an open-air restaurant with a spectacular view of a nearby mountainside. A controlled avalanche is underway. The diners are excited to see it, stepping forward to the rails to take pictures as the cascading snow pours down the rugged slope. But it keeps approaching—a wall of snow 50 feet high, one of them reports later, and then panic sets in. Within minutes or even seconds they are enveloped in snow and there is no visibility. But it's not snow, only what is called "avalanche fog"—no one was ever in danger. It's apparently one effect of a controlled avalanche.

However, long before anyone understands any of that, in the face of the approaching wall of snow, Tomas has already grabbed his smartphone and exited the restaurant patio at full speed, leaving Ebba and the children to their fates. It was a family with familiar stews of resentments and anxiety when they arrived—Ebba tells others the vacation is for the sake of Tomas, who has been overworked lately, and there's an air of forced joviality about them. But this incident propels them into full-blown crisis, as Ebba passes through a rainbow of emotional charges to come to terms with what happened. Tomas does too, but he takes longer. At first, he simply denies that he ran away and wonders why she keeps wanting to talk about it.

If you know The Loneliest Planet, you know the potential this scenario has for doleful existential self-seriousness. It probes at one of the most tender spots in a relationship, at once an example of the trivial gender roles so many are attempting to shuck and an examination of the profoundest meanings of commitment to another person. Force Majeure is more of a comedy about that—black comedy, if we have to, but dwelling affectionately on the tender and absurd foibles of human relationship. At the same time, director and writer Ruben Ostlund has made a point in interviews of saying he's aware how, in many extraordinary incidents of the type (he mentions the Titanic and the Estonia), at the end of it a majority of the survivors are men at or near the prime of life. Not women, children, and seniors, who are supposed to be first in line to things like lifeboats.

There's a lot of give to all this, of course, ample room for comforting rationale. As someone here mentions, in an air flight emergency you are instructed to put the oxygen mask on yourself before your children. (Ebba naturally fails to see the relevance of the comparison, even as Tomas keeps reminding her that they are all right now, no one was hurt. It was a bad experience but it's over.) The issues lend themselves naturally to doleful existential self-seriousness, but tempering them with humor—wicked sharp humor in a few places—somehow makes it easier to connect with the implications, which grind through here to a reasonably satisfying resolution.

Force Majeure also has great performances from its principals, notably Kongsli as Ebba, who is clearly rattled to her core by the incident and then the bewildering aftermath. She's a bit of a priggish moralist, passing judgment on others, so she has an edge. In one social event after another, having drinks or at dinner with friends, she tells the story and Tomas says he doesn't remember it "that way." He says things like it's impossible to run in ski boots, so he couldn't have run away. Finally, in the company of another couple on a ski vacation, they turn to the phone video evidence.

As a black comedy, one of the strengths of Force Majeure is how placid and austere it is, even as it goes to buffoonish extremes (Tomas has a memorably over-the-top crying scene). The wintertime mountain views, especially at night and in daytime snow fog, are shimmeringly beautiful. Ostlund has a background as a skiing film director, but his camera is remarkably still, emphasizing the aspect in the story of simply looking. The pace, over the five days of the vacation, is deliberate, but it can explode emotionally at the most unexpected moments. The music is great too—a riff from Vivaldi's Summer Concerto at key moments (get it?) and a haunting ambient theme by Ola Flottum.

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