Monday, October 20, 2014

Submitted by Sweden: Force Majeure

At least it was an iPhone. If it had been a generic droid Tomas grabbed before abandoning his family in the face of an apparent but unrealized disaster, it really would have been embarrassing. His wife is still pretty disgusted, but he will deny everything in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

With its Cannes credentials, Force was a logical choice for Sweden’s official foreign language Academy Award submission, but it is not the sort sentimental cheer that warms older members’ hearts. Nevertheless, it is a story about family. Swedish workaholic (if such a person exists) Tomas has finally set aside five days for a skiing trip in the French Alps. The view is spectacular from a mountainside restaurant, but when a controlled avalanche gets a little too close, Tomas grabs said phone and skedaddles, leaving Ebba behind with their young son and tweener daughter. When he sheepishly returns, acting as if nothing happened, their meals are covered in a light dusting of snow, but the damage to their family unit will be considerable.

While Tomas tries to play it off, Ebba keeps forcing the issue throughout the increasingly testy day, even bringing casual acquaintances at the lodge into their drama. Despite their attempts to shield the kids from the worst of it, the issue continues to fester with everyone. When Tomas’s mate Mats arrives with his twenty year old girl friend, they are effectively enlisted to render an independent judgment. However, the loaded story fuels their own clash of the sexes.

If Östlund set out hoping to make viewers wince and whisper “wow, that’s awkward” than Force is a smashing success. He has a real knack for putting his characters under a microscope and making them squirm, which is impressive (and exhausting) to watch. He also cleverly transforms the relatively mundane hotel setting into something cold, dark, and severe, often showing the couples’ confrontations from the perspective of a janitor watching from across the rotunda.

In terms of tone, Force is reminiscent of Thomas Vinterberg’s dogme classic The Celebration, except no laws are broken. Yet, there is certainly a strong sense of betrayal when Tomas fails to uphold the unspoken standards of masculinity and fatherhood. While the mountains dwarf Östlund’s characters, his interior shots have a palpable sense of claustrophobia.

Lisa Loven Kongsli’s performance as Ebba is smart and, if you will, forceful. You can see her picking the emotional scab for almost masochistic and sadist reasons alike, but she never launches into outrageously over-the-top-Meryl-Streep-in-Osage-County territory. In contrast, it is Johannes Kuhnke’s job to slowly deflate Tomas, which he does quite convincingly. Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju’s Mats is also quite an engaging sad sack inadvertently caught up in his pal’s mess.

Strangely, Östlund leaves the door open for redemption in a finale that seems quite out of place compared to everything it follows, but he never does any favors for tourism in the French Alps. This film will make the beach look like a better destination until the next tsunami movie comes along. A bracingly well play spectacle of family disintegration, Force Majeure is recommended for those who appreciate caustic chamber dramas when it opens this Friday (10/24) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.