Force Majeure

If the term ‘date movie’ still carries the pejorative sting I believe it to, then I think the Swedish dark comedy, Force Majeure, is a contender as the most comprehensively anti-date movie of all time. Not only is it a spotlessly assembled piece of cinema, but if you’re looking for film to playfully discuss at the beginning of what you hope to be a burgeoning relationship, there are few poorer choices you could make.

The film opens on the slopes of a ski resort where a typical European middle class family are enjoying a typically European middle class family holiday. Slyly off kilter cinematography, tips us off early that hunky father Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children will soon be put through the thematic wringer, and their familial bond stressed to breaking.

The inciting incident arrives just 10 minutes into what has been a beautifully shot but otherwise unremarkable lark in the snow-covered hills. Settling in for an outdoor café breakfast, the family and other patrons have their attention drawn to the nearby thundering that signals one of the snowfields’ controlled avalanches. Captured in a single anxious shot, it soon becomes clear that the avalanche is much less controlled than desired, and the café goers may in fact be in life-threatening danger from the white mass rapidly tumbling towards them.

As the family are about to be engulfed, each member reacts on instinct. Where the children huddle towards their parents for protection and mother Ebba swoops them up protectively, patriarch Thomas springs from his seat, snatches up his iPhone, and flees from his petrified family. Suddenly, the avalanche stops short of doing anyone physical damage, but as the white miasma clears it’s very apparent Thomas’ cowardly second of self-preservation has caused irreparable damage to his relationships.

The consequences of the incident are teased out in slow, agonising intimacy over the following hours and days. It begins with the father’s absurd denial when confronted by his wife – he insists it all comes down to a simple differing of opinion – causing socially awkward flow-on affects with friends and strangers, and results in a traumatic breakdown of Thomas’ connection with his family and very identity. And the audience is forced ever closer to the characters through invasively tight, cringingly long shots of personal dissolution.

Director Ruben Östlund has quickly established a name for himself as a deft hand at the quietly unsettling comic tragedy, and Force Majeure is the most impressively controlled example of this to date. Slipping only occasionally with the inclusion of unnecessary elements – like the introduction of Thomas’ friend Mates (Kristofer Hivju, still sporting his Game of Thrones wildling beard) – the director tightens the screws on his fraught characters with grimly comical precision. Much credit must also go to cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel, whose beautiful, lingering shots of the man-manipulated mountain are perfectly disquieting.

Much rests on both Kuhnke and Kongsli in the leads, as they are submitted to the camera’s grueling scrutiny and their unspoken queues subtly reveal volumes of their characters’ incubated torment. He spirals down the slope of undone masculine folly with riveting energy, while her considered navigation of the relationship’s fluctuating power dynamic is a study in understated strength and thoughtfulness.

Psychologically painful without ever being cruel, and devilishly comical in a way one dare not be caught smiling at, Force Majeure finds an innate appeal in being deeply discomforting. Just like a devastating avalanche, the film is equal parts beautiful and horrible, and simply mesmerising in its punishing spectacle.

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