Cannes 2014: ‘Force Majeure’ shows maximum control from the powerfully subtle Östlund

Force Majeure posterForce Majeure

Written and directed by Ruben Östlund

Sweden/Denmark/France/Norway, 2014

Ruben Östlund’s powerful tale of moral expectations begins in a pure-white canvas as a photographer cheekily moves the family through mundane vacation picture poses. The camera, though already framing excellently in 2.35,  swerves along with the family of skiers to create a silent, elegant painting of action. Scenes are often shot in long-take, though the conversations they encompass may elevate its transfixing pace. It’s slow, droll, and has the visual competency of an action film which sets it up initially as a natural black comedy. However, an instigating event suddenly transforms relationships within the nuclear family and beyond adding a significant undercurrent of tension that’s been rightly compared to The Loneliest Planet. From a storytelling and tonal perspective, it’s a different kind of beast that relies and succeeds through timing the combinations of drama’s basic components.

Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), outwardly acting as a reasonable and compassionate family man, bolts away from his force-majeurekin as a controlled avalanche makes its way to the restaurant deck. The family gain their composure as they come to realize that they are all safe, acknowledging that their end survival is what’s ultimately important. Yet as the insatiable frustration builds up within his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), a need to understand his reaction causes the couple to fight in front of their friends, causing a chain reaction in the next couple to discuss the role of a patriarchal sense of duty and biological behavior. They bicker first about the incident itself, then of the ethical role, then of what can be done to right the wrong. It ends with a reversal of the first event — a nonevent caused by overexerted caution that adds a second layer of commentary to a film of ethical dialogue.

The shots are composed literally, centered as if channeling a visual mimicry of 2.35 Wes Anderson to ride along with its importation of deadpan humor and bleak storytelling. The couple’s back-and-forth banter leads to long pauses and absurd punchlines (while investigating the actual footage of the event, Tomas pauses and counters “I agree it looks like I’m running”). With a tone that matches the pure white palette of the landscape, and an approach to dialogue that runs alongside the rhythmic cuts of snow machinery and controlled avalanche explosions, Force Majeure shows maximum control from the powerfully subtle Östlund.

 – Zach Lewis


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