Guilt (Ski) Trip
With androids and definitely-not-mutants mounting an occupation in force of every major cinema in the country, it's once again a fruitful time for counter-programmers as they seek to appeal to those who don't necessarily like their cinema quite so Marvel-lous. One of the main beneficiaries, this time around, seems to be Ruben Ostlund (two dots over the O) and his film Force Majeure.
Now, there are alien worlds, then there are alien worlds, and then there are Swedish family winter sports holidays – and this is the milieu into which the director plunges. (Yes, the spellchecker is on red alert.) This is the story of Tomas (Johannes Bar Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), a successful couple with a couple of young children. As the film opens, they have just started a week-long skiing holiday at a luxurious resort and are posing for photographs there. The image is that of a perfect, happy, traditional family – but how much is artifice and how much reality?
Things are put to the test soon enough, when the family are confronted with the terrifying spectacle of an oncoming avalanche. Faced with a split-second decision, Tomas flees, leaving Ebba clinging to their children. It turns out to be a controlled avalanche manufactured by the resort for safety reasons, and Tomas returns a few seconds later, slightly shame-faced. They continue with the holiday as before – or so it seems.
The children are oddly wilful and unsettled. Tomas senses an atmosphere between him and Ebba, but she denies anything is wrong. However, at dinner with friends that night she insists on bringing up the subject of the avalanche, and refuses to accept Tomas' version of events (in which, not surprisingly, his running away does not feature).
Tomas' moment of cowardice – or ruthless self-preservation – has clearly had a severe effect on them and their marriage, and one that threatens to (ahem) snowball out of control as the holiday goes on. Can they find a way to get past it and come to terms with their shaken images of themselves and each other?
Well, it's not too much of a spoiler to say that nobody dies in Force Majeure (or even really comes close), and yet this is a more disturbing film, with a more pronounced sense of angst and trauma in it, than many a big-budget film with a three-figure bodycount. The director's approach is meticulously low-key and naturalistic, and all the interior scenes take place in impeccably stylish and modern hotel rooms, but a deep sense of anxiety and uneasiness resonates in every scene following the key moment with the avalanche – which, incidentally, is done in a single take, something which manages to be both technically impressive and narratively significant. There's no chance of a Rashomon-style choice of recollections here, as Tomas feebly attempts to suggest, for the audience has already seen him bolting from danger and abandoning his loved ones.
It doesn't sound like much of a premise for a film, but the script and performances make it urgent and compelling, and give it a surprisingly universal theme. Our perception of masculinity, and our expectations of men are what are fundamentally under examination in this film. At one point the crisis seems to be threatening to go viral, as one of Tomas' friends, attempting to mediate between the couple, is casually told by his girlfriend that she could imagine him running away if he were in Tomas' place, leading to a further outbreak of hostilities in this relationship, too.
The film is fairly relentlessly scathing about men in general, presenting them as vain, arrogant, and largely dependent upon the admiration of women for their sense of self-worth. (There's a grimly funny scene where Tomas appears to recover his composure, but only after a drunk young woman unintentionally flatters him in one of the hotel bars.) I thought for a while that the film was perhaps pushing this angle a bit too far and coming across as a touch Rev Fem, but the climax appears to redress this a bit: like much of the film, this is extremely understated and presents the viewer with no easy answers, though.
That the film works as well as it does is largely down to the carefully controlled, almost forensic direction, and two extremely strong and subtle performances from the lead actors: both are confronted by a truth about either themself or their relationship that was previously unimaginable, and they simply can't process it, let alone move on with their lives. They carry the film between them, though there is a nice supporting turn from Kristofer Hivju (whom I understand plays Timbo Giantbasher in Musical Chairs, or something), and also a brief appearance by Brady Corbet, who started his career playing Alan Tracy in Jonathan Frakes' reviled Thunderbirds movie and has gone on to have an interestingly eclectic career in the intervening years.
This is a (largely) foreign language, art-housey kind of film that was coming to the end of its theatrical run even when I saw it, and it's such an intense, understated, almost existential drama that I would hesitate to recommend it without careful thought, even though I was very impressed by it. If nothing else, it proves that no-one really does despair like Scandinavians. Those wacky Swedes! Still, a classy movie, in its way.