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Review: Force Majeure

January 5, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Force Majeure Poster

There’s a valid reason why the Swedish export Force Majeure, a festival sensation and sure to be frontrunner for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, remains among the most discussed and widely praised movies of 2014.

This is simply one of the best films of the recently wrapped year, a compelling and wildly entertaining dissection of relationships, gender politics and societal expectations, that cuts deep and explodes with the same force as the avalanche at the centre of the story.  There’s just so much here that’s worth talking about.

Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are on a five day skiing vacation in France, with their two kids Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren).  We soon find out that Tomas is a workaholic, and the impromptu photo session of the opening scene subtly reveals the increasingly staid nature of their relationship.

But things change even more dramatically for them on the second day.  When a controlled avalanche breaks out that appears to be heading right towards the restaurant where they are having lunch, Tomas panics and runs away, grabbing only his gloves and phone, leaving Ebba and the kids to hide under a table.  Everyone is safe and shortly reunited, but there is suddenly a rift between them, the scope of which we immediately sense through the screen.

Ebba is left terrified by the thought that her husband could so easily abandon her, and Tomas feels like his dignity and manhood are being challenged when she finally confronts him about it.  Through this, the film brilliantly questions stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, showing fear and cowardice as primal responses that can strike anyone in much the same way.  Was Tomas right to run away?  No, but is Ebba right to always bring up the incident in front of dinner guests, forcing other couples to share their own thoughts on the situation, and transferring the argument over to them?

There are no easy answers, just more questions, which is precisely the strength of Force Majeure.  Even on vacation, this is a family trapped in a seemingly endless cycle, from which they can’t escape.  Perfectly edited montages of exploding cannons, set to operatic music and the cacophonic noise of their electric toothbrushes buzzing in unison, help symbolize the forced monotony of their lives.  The cinematography is striking, putting the audience right on the creaking ski lifts and engulfing us in the snowy landscapes, while also adding visual intrigue to the dialogue scenes and hotel room interactions.

The film brilliantly uses long takes and stationary shots to display palpable tension within every frame, as the different camera angles help signify power shifts between the characters.  This includes a memorable moment where Ebba sits down in the foreground of the frame, putting her back to the camera, and effectively blocking her husband from view.  There are also some interesting uses of mirrors, particularly in the bathroom scenes that blur boundaries, without actually bringing them any closer.

Director Ruben Östlund has crafted a work of absolute genius, perfectly handling all of these complicated emotions, with every little moment adding something integral to the larger story and themes.  His screenplay draws powerful comparisons between characters and events, coming full circle in the perfectly setup final moments, keeping this fascinating conversation going long after the credits roll.  The acting is uniformly excellent, with the completely believable performances further drawing us in throughout every one of these impeccably staged scenes.

Provoking constant thought, while also providing an icy blast of entertainment, Force Majeure keeps us hooked with perverse curiosity as the dynamics between these characters grow increasingly more complex.  Brilliantly mixing domestic drama with appropriately uncomfortable humour, this is an ingeniously written look at how one moment of panic can literally snowball out of control, that ends with the lingering question of what would you do?

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