Thursday, 1 January 2015

Force Majeure

"Compelling premise" is a phrase I use to describe many a film. In a competitive film industry, an interesting, provoking story arc is an invaluable selling point. Swedish flick, Force Majeure captivates and beguiles its audience like no film this year. Achingly uncomfortable, the feature incites unusual thought and discussion of the postmodern marital relationship and much like the Fincher's Gone Girl, it is laced with cynicism, spiked with realism and presented in a harrowing, perceptive glory. The film sustains beautifully with a dry, idiosyncratic humour, biting social commentary and dynamic, stylistic production and staging. This critique of Force Majeure will stand at an odd contrast from my last review on Testament of Youth where I insistently praised the traditional style of the film. Unlike the conventional vigour of Testament, Force Majeure profits continuously from its sheer originality, the perplexing, oddly confrontational tone of the film will twist through your mind and rest comfortably in its darkest corners. One question is guaranteed to linger on the lips of the audience as they exit the theatre- "what would you do?". 

Force Majeure, in its most literal sense, refers to an unavoidable incident, a "superior force", which is precisely the type of event which cleanly replaces the delicate balance of one swedish family with certain anarchy. When I refer to the "balance" of the family, I mean to cite its conceptual dynamics, more specifically the uneasy power play of its members. The film is no standard natural disaster flick. The disaster here wreaks ruin in the most unusual way. During a ski holiday in the French Alps, a family is enjoying a meal on a rooftop restaurant when they are graced with what initially appears to be nothing more than a natural spectacle, a small, "controlled" avalanche. But as the formidable mass of snow nears, panic rises and the dear father of the family, Tomas, reassuring his family only moments earlier, is nowhere to be seen. Reliable mother Ebba, clings desperately to her children and in many fruitless attempts, calls out persistently for her husband. But soon, the snow settles, the impending disaster never occurs, giving way to embarrassment and an ugly reality, as the sheepish father returns to the dining table and resumes his meal. 

During the remainder of the ski trip, Tomas's deplorable reaction to the avalanche slowly consumes the entire family. No confrontation immediately occurs, rather each of the characters allow time to fully comprehend the details of the incident. Ebba's anguish gradually reveals itself, somewhat exclusively in the presence of various of friends and acquaintances.  The result is a strange intrigue as the unwitting jury attempts to reason with and appease the couple. The issues and weaknesses of the modern marriage, once hidden neatly in the shadows, are at once amplified and the state of the entire family heads into ready crisis. The situation is analysed from every angle, every possible perception of Tomas' actions are examined. From a sympathetic angle, Tomas is no more than a slave and victim to his own survival instincts. The irony of the situation is that his self-preservation has lead only to self-sabotage - the respect and trust of his family once keenly held at the palm of his hand has now dissipated. In the worst light however, Tomas's has been exposed as a self-orientated man, far removed from his family and devoid of the necessary devotion and sacrifice that keeps the family unit alive. What director Ruben Östlund offers the audience however, is not an easy resolution- a definitive answer is never provided. What Östlund does offer is an astoundingly objective exposition of an ethical predicament. It is for the audience to dispute and decide. 

Östlund strives to give depth to his film and yet neglects not in the visual presentation of Force Majeure. The feature is effortlessly stylish, the framing impeccable and whilst the landscape itself is notably stunning, it is not this which draws the audience's attention but the unusual way in which this landscape is shot. Each sequence from the various wordless skiing scenes to the climactic avalanche scene to the humorous, insightful group discussions are beautifully staged, rich and fascinating. The feature is further complemented by an intentionally jarring score consisting of dramatic strings tactically interrupting the action in short, sharp bursts.  

Vibrant and astute, Force Majeure competently examines family dynamics and gender roles in a deeply satirical and situational manner. The feature is enriched with prickly sentiment and a self-aware humour, naturalistic yet intriguing dialogue and bravado performances all-round. In the lead roles of Tomas and Ebba, Johannes Kuhnke and Lida Loven Kongsli play to their strengths and emerge triumphant, their performances utterly convincing, hitting all the right notes in comedic and dramatic spirit. A fascinating, candid insight into contemporary family structures and the human instinct, Force Majeure illuminates humans as the shameful creatures we are - struggling day-by-day to live up to our individual ideals and values. It is that rare film, unnerving in its honesty and liberating in its perceptiveness. 


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