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Words like “mesmerizing” and “exquisite” seem ill-chosen when used to describe a black comedy, but in the case of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, they are required vocabulary. Unexpected twists lie around every corner – a wailing Russian Bayan bawls Vivaldi’s “RV 315 Presto” heightening the overall sense of unease, and brings a hidden malevolence to Östlund’s seductive imagery.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are vacationing in the French Alps with their children Harry and Vera (Vincent and Clara Wettergrien). A brief, forced, respite from Tomas’s demanding job in Sweden, the vacation serves as a means for the family to grow closer together. The first day on the slopes is full of laughs and fun, Tomas and Ebba taking it easy on the beginner slopes to teach their kids the intricacies of skiing. Day two starts with a high-altitude breakfast at an outdoor cafe, outstanding views surrounding the family as they dine. Just as their food arrives, a “controlled” avalanche is triggered, sending tons of snow hurtling down the mountain. Reassuring his family that the resort staff know what they are doing, he urges his family to be calm as the wall of snow careens into view. Patrons panic as the white wall closes in, Östlund’s camera refusing to cut, even as the lens is obscured by white, screams of the diners are our only sense of what is happening.
Force Majeure is defined by the moments surrounding this avalanche. It is by far the longest take in the film, one shot from beginning to end – calm, to chaos, back to calm, Östlund’s astonishing shot sets the tone for the rest of the film, and lays out a pattern for the events to follow.
Heavily reliant on the combination of imagery and sound, Force Majeure tells a story within a story. He reflects his character’s emotions in the images and landscapes that surround them. Fredrik Wenzel’s stunning cinematography gives depth to every shot, each meticulously chosen to imbue a sense of place or mood rather than to further the sparse narrative. Breathtaking shots of the heavily mechanized and overly-manicured slopes are contrasted to an equally-refined family – an immense amount of effort goes into making something inherently perfect more organized, safe, and outwardly untarnished. Explosions from the many “anti-avalanche” cannons crowd the film, each boom bringing with it the possibility of a monumental collapse. Through shots of Ebba set against a background shrouded in a grey haze, we feel her sense of being lost in a void; unable to escape or fix the life she so carefully assembled. Ola Fløttum’s minimal score works to unbalance the audience and build tension, while Östlund focuses on the fraying relationships of his family in their diegetic quietude – the Vivaldi presto pulsing in the insert shots like an impending emotional avalanche.
Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli share an unmistakable chemistry as the slowly-unraveling couple. Unable to come to terms with their reactions to the avalanche, their marital bliss takes a backseat to personal outrage and embarrassment. Kuhnke delivers a fantastic turn as the willfully ignorant Tomas, refusing to acknowledge his behavior in any meaningful way, while grappling with untold inner demons and his own self-worth. Kongsli’s Ebba, who has build her entire life around having children and a loving husband, is utterly despondent when her life is thrown into disarray. Her sense of self thrown into the wind, Kongsli’s Ebba grapples with her new life, and the rebuilding of her, now baseless, self-esteem. Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius are wonderful in their roles as an ancillary couple, Mats and Fanni – Mats as one of Tomas’ oldest friends, and Fanni his 20-year old girlfriend. Confronted with Tomas and Ebba’s dissolving relationship, Mats and Fanni wrestle with their own problems, and speculations on their actions in similar circumstances.
A hypnotic and profoundly funny contemplation on human nature and self-contentment, Force Majeure is a delicate deconstruction of the modern familial structure. With astounding cinematography, and one of the best on-screen cries in recent memory, Ruben Östlund’s film is one of the best of the decade so far, and one deserving of considerably more praise (I’m looking at you Academy).