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.
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).
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.
“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 a brutally 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.