REVIEW: “Force Majeure”

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I wasn’t familiar with Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, at least until I watched his recent film “Force Majeure”. Now I find myself anxious to seek out his other work. “Force Majeure” has left that kind of impression – a stinging film with a glossy appearance at first glance but with something far more sharp and jagged underneath. The film has certainly grabbed attention, winning a Jury Prize at Cannes and being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Golden Globes. Surely an Oscar nomination will follow.

Östlund wrote and directed the film and he handles his material with a scalpel. He carefully dissects his small cast of characters, particularly a husband and wife who are on a ski trip with their two young children. Right from the start we pick up on several interesting things about Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli). The posh mountain resort where they stay and their fancy ski gear seem to indicate that they are financially secure. There are also references that seem to indicate Tomas is a business man and this trip is a much needed opportunity to spend time with his family. And that’s all we get – only hints about their past. It’s all we need.

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On the surface it seems we are seeing a happy and healthy family. But Östlund takes us well beyond the window dressing. Several cracks in the facade begin to show, but it truly comes to light as they are having lunch on a terrace with a breathtaking view of the mountains. Fun family small talk and chatter soon gives way to fear after a controlled avalanche gets too close to the restaurant. In a self-centered panic Tomas runs away from their table leaving Ebba to protect their children. It’s a harrowing scene. It turns out that everyone is okay and they even return to eating their lunch. But in this scene the true catastrophe has revealed itself and it has nothing to do with raging snow.

Östlund breaks the film down in five chapters posing as the days of their vacation. Each day the central relationship shows more stress. Instead of laughs and enjoyment, the vacation days feature blank stares and only the required conversation. Whenever the couple do try to talk it inevitably turns back to the avalanche. Ebba is determined that Tomas admit what happened. Tomas responds by denying Ebba’s interpretation of the events. This even bleeds over into an awkward dinner they have with an old friend named Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius).

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There is also the perspective of the children. We rarely get into their heads, but when we do it’s potent and devastating. Östlund doesn’t use the kids to get cheap emotional reactions. Instead we get them in small but powerful portions. They know what is happening. They feel the tension. We feel their fear and concern. At times both of their parents put them on the backburner making them the ultimate victims.

The story of “Force Majeure” is told with an audacious tenacity. Östlund’s focus never strays and he bucks all kinds of conventions in order to wring out every drop of authenticity and veracity from his characters and his story. Even the gorgeous French Alps setting doesn’t distract us from the deeper focus. The mountainous landscapes are stunningly beautiful while at the same time ominously threatening. Even they serve as a metaphor for this seemingly lovely but volatile family situation.

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“Force Majeure” also stands out due to Östlund’s remarkable technique. With the exception of a few tracking shots showing the family skiing, Östlund’s camera rarely moves. He frames his scenes by strategically placing his camera in a still position then allowing the scene to play out. The camera doesn’t twitch. It doesn’t turn. It simply observes. This technique results in several well-conceived and methodical scenes, but also a number of long simple takes that relay just as much emotion and information.

At the heart of “Force Majeure” lies a bitter and uncomfortable reflection of a relationship in crisis. As we go along things grow gloomier and I began to think of Michael Haneke, or at least a lighter version of him. There is definitely pain and anguish and we are left with an uncertainty that leaves things up in the air. But all of that is okay because “Force Majeure” is such an honest film and it doesn’t use kid gloves when handling its material. It’s that unbridled truth that makes this such a potent and powerful movie.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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27 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Force Majeure”

  1. First review I’ve read of this and you’ve certainly piqued my interest. Sounds very good. It’s interesting that you mention Haneke in your final paragraph as his name sprang to mind (Hidden / Cache in particular) when you were discussing the stillness of the camera. I will definitely check this out if I can find it!

    • It is worth your time! I have been looking and looking for this film and it finally shiwed up on Vudu. It didnt disappoint.

      I’m a big fan of Haneke and even those his films can be difficult to watch there is such craft behind his storytelling technique. You see some of that in Force Majeure. Visceral subject matter told through an impeccable eye.

  2. Great write-up! This is truly an amazing film that I couldn’t stop thinking about for days after seeing it. It was my first encounter with Östlund as well, but I will definitely check out the rest of his filmography as soon as possible.

    • Thanks so much. I’m still chewing on it as well. Aside from the obvious questions it asks, I’m looking at both Tomas and Ebba and trying to figure them both out. Both have uncomfortable flaws which make them all the more fascinating.

      I love it when movies stick in my head like this.

    • Thanks so much. Appreciate the comments. This is a movie definitely worth seeking out. It took me a while to finally get access to it. So glad I did. Once you see it be sure to let me know what you think.

  3. Good review Keith. Every scene in this movie goes from one place to another, and you never can quite predict how or why. That was fascinating to me, but also, so was the family-dynamics.

    • Thanks dude. It is very unpredictable. I remember several times thinking something terrible was about to happen. Don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll leave it at that. But I love how the movie kept me on my toes.

  4. Great review, man! I just recently heard about this and the more I’m reading people’s thoughts on it, the more interested I’m becoming. It sounds absolutely superb. Right up my street.

    • Thanks man. I think it’s one that you will really appreciate. Think Haneke-lite. It’s definitely a movie that will stick with you for a while. Hopefully you’ll have an easier time finding it than I did.

      • Considering your location it may be a lot easier for you to find. I’ve been monitoring every outlet I have. It finally popped up on Vudu this week.

    • Oooh it’s so good Cindy. I think you’ll really appreciate it. It is definitely a ‘no holds barred’ look at a ttoubled relationship. But it also features such great direction. Hope you can see it soon.

      Oh, I too have missed out on waaay to many docs this year.

  5. I covered this film in my December monthly recap, and really liked it too!
    Good observation that the mountains serve as a metaphor for this seemingly lovely but volatile family situation.
    Even though it’s a Scandinavian film(where I’m from) your review indicates the story can have appeal to US viewers as well, which is great.

    • Thanks for the comments Chris! I can say that anyone from the States or anywhere that skips this film are missing out. For me it is superb filmmaking and I’m still thinking about the film. To be honest, this is ten times better than a lot of the slop that comes out of Hollywood.

      And I didn’t even talk much about the performances. Sooo good.

    • Oh Ruth this is a remarkable movie. It cuts deep into a relationship that isnt all it appears to be. It isnt quite as gloomy as Haneke but the camera work is so similar.

      • Ah glad to hear it isn’t gloomy. I dunno, I try to stay away from dour and somber films, esp in the Winter months when it’s already so depressing as it is w/ temps bottoming out to -20˚ F around here, and that’s not counting the frigid wind chill 😦

      • Ahah, 18˚ is like a warm front!! In fact, we’re rejoicing that highs will be in mid teens today, ABOVE zero! I tell ya, some will be in shorts & t-shirts when temps hit above freezing 😀

  6. Ok, I”m officially kicking myself for having chosen to avoid this when it was at my local art house theater (for all of like, a week, I think). 🙂 I wasn’t sure what it was about and usually I do like having some kind of knowledge heading in, so I went to see ‘Wild’ instead. Which, yeah that was good, but now I’m really curious about this. This sounds right up my alley man.

    Out of curiosity, have you heard of the film ‘Escape from Tomorrow?’ It was a little-known indie release about a family spending their day in Disney World when a family dynamic becomes front-and-center. This sounds like the movie that was trying to be.

    • No I’m not familiar with that film. When was it released?

      I highly recommend searching out Force Majeure. It would definitely be in my top 10 if I had watched it before making the list. It’s that good. Plus it has my favorite scene of 2014 hands down.

      • ‘Escape from Tomorrow’ was a late 2013/early 2014 release if I’m not mistaken. It featured a great premise, but the execution was just very, very poor. Left a lot to be desired.

      • Hmmm, well I think you’ll find this film much more pleasing. It has been swirling around in my head, at least until tonight. Watched Boyhood for the third time and now I can’t quit thinking about it.

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