TIFF 2014: ‘Force Majeure’ is a searing and knotty satire of masculinity

Force Majeure posterForce Majeure

Written and directed by Ruben Östlund

Sweden/Denmark/Norway, 2014

The folly and arrogance of masculinity is harshly scrutinized in Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, an intense and intelligent domestic drama that asks some cutting questions about modern gender roles. High up in the French Alps, a family of four slowly crumbles after an instance of cowardice manifests itself and continues to marinate over the course of five days. That the act takes place in just the first ten minutes and slowly festers up until the last few scenes speaks volumes about Östlund as a stylist. While only sporadically involving as an unsettling study of race and class in contemporary Sweden, the director’s last film, Play (2011), hinted at what the director could accomplish with a tighter and more absorbing project. While Force Majeure isn’t a perfect film by any stretch, it should instantly make Östlund a household name.

The family in question is made up of Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their kids Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren). We learn that part of the reason for their holiday at the ski resort is due to Tomas being busy at work; Ebba is confident that some quality family time will bring them closer together. Everything changes on the second day of the vacation when the four take a break from skiing to have lunch at an outdoor café with a beautiful view of the nearby mountains. Soon enough, they witness a controlled avalanche and start to panic – Tomas assures them they’ll be fine, but the accumulated snow picks up steam and looks as if it’ll wipe everyone on the veranda out. Ebba’s natural inclination is to reach for her children, while Tomas snatches his cell phone and gloves and starts to book.

Holding the shot with keen and eerie precision, it’s revealed that the white-out that collided with the restaurant and the screen was just residue left over from the avalanche below. The family shakes off the freak occurrence, but the damage has already been done. Ebba and Tomas are then caught in a suspended daze until Ebba lets her feelings known during dinner with another couple. The rest of the film unspools like a darkly comedic version of Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet (2011), a less severe takedown of masculine codes and a more minimalist examination of instinct versus societal behavior in the face of danger.

Force Majeure

In this film, the marriage seems all but erased in a matter of minutes, leaving Tomas to reconfigure the idea of a male and what his family quietly perceives him as. Unable to shake off her husband’s reaction and lies about what happened – even though it’s crystal clear to us, Ebba is exposed to another instance of failed social norms after a friend tells her that she and her husband maintain an open relationship even after having two kids. Meanwhile, Tomas eventually sinks into a pit of despair and shame after realizing that fleeing from the scene was a breaching of social responsibility. The tension of the couple’s downward plunge is masterfully drawn out and configured. Most of the film is comprised of static shots that reveal more information about the couple than some of the dialogue.

Cheekily revealing himself as a cunning satirist, Östlund finds great pleasure in holding the magnifying glass up to the social concerns of his home country. Thankfully, Östlund isn’t the wagging finger type that many have recently labeled Michael Haneke as. Possessing superior control of his framing, tone, and pacing, Östlund’s film works best when it doesn’t push its metaphors too far. While the film may not stick its landing, the preceding what-if scenarios combined with the director’s sinister style create a chilly family drama littered with a unique and unwavering sense of foreboding.

— Ty Landis

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