EUFF Review: 'Force Majeure'

Force Majeure (Turist)
(Sweden, 118 min.)
Written and directed by Ruben Östlund
Starring: Johannes Bah, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius
Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren and Vincent Wettergren in Force Majeure,
a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Ah, the family vacation. They’re the best of times and the worst of times; an unnatural disaster of escapism in which parents and children squeeze into close confines 24/7 and try to have some fun. Anything is possible if one survives one of these excursions.

Ski holidays are an especially fun class of family vacations, since they call and parents and children alike to be bright and cheery whilst spending eight hours a day in frigid temperatures and blustery winds. Don’t get me wrong, some of my best family memories are ski vacations, but anyone who wants to experience true irritability should probably hit the slopes with family, whiz down the moguls in sub-zero winds, and then head back to a hotel room that can barely contain a family of rabbits and play some games. Look not to the ski hill for relaxation.

Writer/director Ruben Östlund seems to have been on many of these love/hate holidays, for he finds a hilarious comedy of manners in the family vacation from hell in Sweden’s Force Majeure. Force Majeure is Sweden’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s Academy Awards race and it could easily go all the way. This is world cinema’s equivalent to a Griswold family gong show. It’s deadpan funny, black comedy at its finest, and a scathingly sharp examination of gender roles and human nature.

The gist of the film is that a family goes to enjoy five days of skiing in the French Alps, but the pleasant escape of whooshing down the slopes is cut short on the second day. Whilst sitting on the patio of the ski lodge and enjoying an outdoor lunch, the family witnesses an avalanche that explodes out of control and engulfs the picturesque patio at which they dine. Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), the mother, huddles with her kids Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) while Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), the father, saves his iPhone and skedaddles. “Women and children first” be damned.

Nothing quite ruins a family getaway like the thought that daddy doesn’t care if his kids and wife die under a bazillion tonnes of snow and ice. (It happens, right?) Well, Ebba understandably finds her marriage shaken as she looks anew at the man practically dragged to the ski hill for some quality family time. The problem magnifies, however, since Tomas refuses to discuss the incident since he recalls it differently in which own mind. Tomas thinks he stayed strong and huddled with the kids. How manly of him. And how awkward.

Force Majeure drolly plays the audience against husband and wife by showing a dramatization of events that solely mirrors Ebba’s version of the story while Tomas unwaveringly stands by his account that he stayed by his family’s side. The he said/she said dynamic screws the tension tighter as Tomas and Ebba regale their fellow skiers with the story of their near-death experience and cause awkward silences and pledges of allegiance as friends either take sides or skirt the issue with trivial niceties. Force Majeure stings extra hard in a volatile popular culture that frequently sees debates polarized into gender divides (albeit sometimes necessarily so) and Östlund plays upon the characters’ notions of proper masculinity/femininity by having spouses take sides with either Tomas or Ebba, or alternately judge them for things like “unmanly behaviour.” Lines are drawn almost immediately by gender as defenses are posited and defenses are made as the friends whom Tomas and Ebba engulf in their squabble try to imagine what they’d do in the same position and pre-emptively defend themselves against hypotheticals. It’s extremely funny, if only for how bluntly honest it is.

Östlund similarly has a riot finding a deadpan visual style to match the dark humour. Deep focus widescreen cinematography accentuates the banality of the ski trip, extending the cringe-inducing holiday into a bunch of awkward family photos as every step and movement seems farcically exaggerated against the snowy backdrop. Force Majeure paints the snowy resort as a sardonically hostile environment in which the hilly landscape, peppered with ominous explosions of controlled avalanches, seems far more inviting than the wood-panelled hotel in which the family enjoys a contagious case of cabin fever. Östlund makes the claustrophobia of the hotel even funnier with the aid of a demure custodian who creeps on Ebba and Tomas like a voyeur or, better yet, a guy who is simply enjoying the show as the family dissolves over the holiday.

Whether gender even has anything to do with the existential conundrum of Force Majeure is the bigger ruse since Tomas’s sissines invites a greater debate about the dark folly of human nature. Do people inherently want to help those in need? Is the idea of putting one’s kin ahead of oneself just a bogus social nicety? Alternatively, like some Darwinian survival game, do people inherently want to save their own skins no matter the imminent consequences to their closest kin?

Force Majeure introduces these questions as they tense, wine-fuelled arguments between Tomas, Ebba, and whomever gets caught in the crosshairs try to understand and/or rationalize Tomas’s behaviour by relating it to real life disasters in which grown adults saved themselves at the expense of children, the elderly, and others in need. Rabbits and spiders might eat their young, but humans generally set themselves apart from animals by preserving hope for the future, although one especially hilarious sequence of Force Majeure puts Tomas’s in a sweaty den full of rambunctious males and no discernable trace of civility.

Bah is very good as Tomas, for he plays the inept patriarch totally straight as he saves face against his inept masculinity. Kongsli is equally fine as Ebba as she gives an emotionally charged turn as her character watches her marriage billow out of control like the snowy avalanche, but fiercely takes charge. Both husband and wife and having a horrible holiday and they’re taking everyone down with them, but half the fun of Force Majeure is knowing that this family is not your own, no matter how true to life their follies might be. Nobody can really judge the situation unless one survives it, and the droll finale of Force Majeure delivers a punch line that zings civilization as one big overreaction as Tomas, Ebba, and company see their situation in a new light.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Force Majeure screens at the European Union Film Festival on Friday, Nov. 27 at 7:00 pm at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington St.

The European Union Film Festival runs Nov. 13-30.
Please visit www.cfi-icf.ca for more information on this year’s festival.

More coverage of the European Union Film Festival may be found here.

Force Majeure is also currently playing in limited release.
It screens again in Ottawa at The ByTowne beginning Dec. 5.