Some of the best storytelling places ordinary people in extraordinary situations or conundrums, and allows us to watch them navigate their way through it. For his latest film, Swedish director Ruben Östlund has come up with a doozy, one that takes its central concept and runs with it to dizzying heights, somehow managing to be both bracingly tense and strangely hilarious. One of the most acclaimed international films of 2014, his ‘Force Majeure’ is one film you cannot afford to miss.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are on a skiing holiday with their two children in the French Alps. One day, while eating lunch on the balcony of a restaurant, a controlled avalanche suddenly hits the restaurant. No one is hurt, but Ebba is disturbed by Tomas’ reaction, and as the holiday progresses, the family unit begins to unravel as they all come to grips with what their patriarch has done.
With an eye as focused as a microscope, Östlund hones in on the family, watching with fascinated detachment as each of them fall apart, even affecting the people around them. It sounds like heavy stuff, and ultimately it is, but somehow it also manages to be extremely funny. There’s something very theatrical about ‘Force Majeure’, the emotions pitched a little more extreme than normal, so that moments that should be profound end up being strangely funny in a black, sadistic way. Östlund also takes great steps to dwarf his characters with the mighty natural and unforgiving landscape around them, so that they seem inconsequential against the forces around them. Fredrik Wenzel’s cinematography is breathtaking, and coupled with Ola Fløttum’s bizarre score and Jacob Secher Schlesinger’s considered editing, make the film surprisingly epic in scale, which again encourages the emotional scale to aim higher and bigger. It also allows it to tackle another idea at its heart, that of what it means to be a man and how tentative the concept of masculinity is within a man himself. Tomas, his position threatened, tries to take it like an adult but can’t help but fall into petulance, driving Ebba even further away from him. The performances step up to the challenge, with both Kuhnke and Kongsli fearlessly throwing themselves at the mercy of Östlund’s carefully constructed vision.
But what really makes ‘Force Majeure’ such a breathtaking film is its moral conundrum, which reaches out of the screen and throttles you. As Tomas and Ebba grapple with Tomas’ actions and what they mean for their marriage, you can’t help wondering what you would have done in his situation. At its best, the film works in all the ways a great Michael Haneke film would, being cinema that is active with its audience rather than passive. That’s what ultimately makes ‘Force Majeure’ stick in your memory. The glorious visuals and fearless performances certainly warrant mention, but it's the active engine behind the film that really keeps you watching and thinking long after. It’s not an easy film to break down, and at times remains purposely obtuse, but this seems more to benefit than to allude us. If great cinema is about launching conversation or presenting an audience with a difficult question to answer, then ‘Force Majeure’ is great cinema indeed.
What really makes ‘Force Majeure’ such a breathtaking film is its moral conundrum, which reaches out of the screen and throttles you.
PICTURE & SOUND
‘Force Majeure’ comes to us on a DVD-only release from Madman, which is a pity, as this is one film that would have really benefited from high definition. That said, it still looks terrific, the transfer getting the best it can in standard definition of the careful colour balance and level of detail. This is a big film visually, shot in a very cinematic 2.35:1 ratio, so try and watch it on as big a screen as possible. It also has an excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 Swedish track, accompanied by English subtitles. This is a film that relies heavily on its sound design, whether it be the strangely insistent score or the heavy silences, and this track maintains the integrity of the sound design.
There’s only one special feature on offer, a short introduction shot by Östlund for the Melbourne International Film Festival. We don’t get much from it though, unfortunately. Then again, maybe this is one of those films much better left to interpretation.