OTTAWA’S CINEMA FOR INTERNATIONAL AND INDEPENDENT MOVIES

Force Majeure

(Turist)

Official Swedish submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 2014.

Screenplay seminars like to prattle on about the ‘inciting event’ that drives a story forward or pushes a film’s characters into the main predicament that defines them. In Force Majeure, the latest brilliantly testing, laugh-as-you-wince experience from Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund, this event is a moment that changes everything, even though no one dies, or suffers physically in any way.

The film unfolds over a five-day skiing holiday in the French Alps, a pricey-looking getaway for a well heeled couple, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children. They sit lunching on a veranda, and start to notice an avalanche – controlled, Tomas reassures them – rolling down the mountainside.

It snowballs and approaches. Consternation grows. Other guests flee. In their moment of blind panic, Ebba’s instinct is to reach for her children. But Tomas grabs his mobile phone, snatches up his gloves, and legs it.

The white-out, after this superbly achieved sequence, dissipates. It was actually just powder, thrown up from the avalanche below. Tomas returns to his shaken family, and for some hours, they carry on in a slight daze, as if nothing untoward has happened.

When Ebba airs her bewildered feelings, the scene is pure Östlund: she does it over dinner, with another couple not only present, but trying, feebly, to pretend the lapse wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Tomas does the same, claiming that his recollection of the crisis is entirely different from Ebba’s. But the film isn’t offering him the Rashomon-like crutch of conflicting subjectivities. We know what we saw. The truth of his abandonment begins to eat away at their marriage like a festering worm.

Östlund has become an almost brutal satirist of his countrymen’s foibles, presumptions and hidden prejudices, like Bergman with a more wicked streak. He drops his films like slow-ticking stinkbombs into the comfy art-houses of Stockholm. In Tomas, Östlund diagnoses traits of stunted male egotism and whopping immaturity, matched with an almost equally immature desire to look like a hero when no personal danger is incurred. Ebba, meanwhile, is far from blame-free, especially in agreeing to present a ‘united front’ to their children, whose dismay at what their dad did (or didn’t do) looks as if it even eclipses hers.

The film is a series of post-mortems after a death that never occurred, unless it’s the death of trust and solidarity in a relationship mainly cushioned by wealth. Each new wrinkle in the scenario makes you squirm and recognize some rarely broached truth.

Mightily clever in its rather theatrical structure, but bracingly cinematic in its formal approach, the movie has a bold, ambiguous final act where the family is placed twice again in potentially dire straits. Though Östlund, a glacial and ever-more-confident stylist, never pushes his own metaphors too far, we’ll add one: this family is skiing down a black run into a blacker chasm.

– Tim Robey, The Daily Telegraph
 

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