Written and Directed by: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius
With the release of “Downhill” this weekend, it was a good time to visit the inspiration for that film, Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure,” a classic black comedy about family, relationships, emotions and adventures.
Oh, and avalanches. We cannot forget about the avalanches.
Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) is a successful businessman. He has a wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and two young kids. A five-day retreat at a luxurious French Alp ski resort is just what the doctor might have ordered.
Except for that pesky avalanche.
Force Majeure, a contractual clause freeing both parties from
liability in the event of unexpected disasters, Östlund, ironically or not,
takes full advantage of his chosen title to imply both action and emotion, rearing its ugly head from the opening frame and does not relent for a second.
That irony is no more readily apparent as the avalanche starts a chain
reaction, slowly and methodically, snowballing into a bout of emotions as Tomas, fearful for his life, leaves his family to face the wall of snow alone with no escape.
Kuhnke is an every man, someone who could easily blend into a crowd. His easygoing nature plays into Kongsli’s more stringent Ebba. There is a muted lack of respect for each other, a product of the amount of time Tomas is away from his family.
Östlund does not let us forget about the impact on their children, climaxed with Vera’s (Clara Wettergren) and Harry’s (Vincent Wettergren) reaction to the situation. They take a very intentionally hostile reaction to their parents, both parents. They demand space in an unexpected forceful tone.
The way Östlund captures the unique confines of the initial reaction with tact was the first of many highlights; both child actors do a phenomenally convincing job of forcing their separation to process the events of the day. In fact, it’s probably the most adult reaction in a story filled with juvenile antics.
Östlund tosses a funny anecdote as Tomas relates his reaction and subsequent denial to an oxygen mask on an airplane, saying that parents should put their oxygen mask on first before helping others.
Whether it is the oft-repeated use of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,”
commenting on the elaborately expanding avalanche of emotions or the off-camera conversations putting the audience in the position of the speaker, sound is a critical part of the intended experience. Östlund conveys his intent without subterfuge, even as Tomas and Ebba struggle to find the words.
The emotions and situations are just as tangible, aided by Mats (Kristofer Hivju, “The Thing” (2011)), one of Tomas’s oldest friends who is also vacationing with his 20-something girlfriend, Fanni (Fanni Metelius). Mats is instrumental in helping his friend to see the error of his ways, Fanni is left to feel like an outsider as they inevitably compare their own reactions to a similar situation. Östlund, the consummate director he is, doesn’t leave their feelings out of the equation. It is, or it will become an integral part of the fabric of the film.
Ultimately, the emotional avalanche is broken up with a rather elegant
solution. Here again, Kuhnke’s performance is a tour d force of emotions as Östlund subtly concocts a way to transition failure as a family into success.
“Force Majeure” is uncomfortable to watch. It is icy in its comedy it is relentlessly crushing in its drama. Östlund ‘s composition is sublimely perfect.
R, 120 minutes, Magnolia Pictures/TriArt Film