Mar 5-7: It’s human nature v. Mother Nature in the acerbically funny ‘Force Majeure’

An uncomfortably unforgettable five-day vacation in the French Alps, Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure [Turist] is a coldly clever look at gender roles and the aftermath of a perceived act of cowardice. It’s human nature versus Mother Nature! Comparisons to Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet are abound in the attention to strained relations during foreign excursions; while Loktev’s film is a bit dry and withholding like one of Antonioni’s psychological dramas, Östlund is more intent on wringing humor from the admittedly basic premise with a touch of upper-class condemnation.

On the second day of a lavish trip, a well-to-do Swedish family’s brunch on their resort’s outdoor patio is halted by an avalanche cascading down the mountainside, which scatters everyone and leaves a frosty blanket of mist in its wake. Instead of shielding his wife and kids, husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) instinctively collects his belongings and scurries off the deck only to return after the danger has cleared. Privately embarrassed but unable to come to terms with Tomas’ actions, his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), in a moment of schadenfreude, publicly emasculates him at a couples dinner. Tomas asserts that they have “different versions of what happened.” With a verbal cue like that, Force Majeure almost promises to approach its subject matter à la Kurosawa’s Rashomon and provide visual contrast through hypothetical flashbacks much like the masterful Japanese jidaigeki from 1950. But Östlund’s grittier effort simply lets the discomfort hang in the frigid air so it smothers another vacationing couple, hipster mountaineer Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his new young girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius), who are forced to take sides on the issue.

Mats’ relationship to the family may be a bit underdeveloped, but he and Fanni add a surprising dimension to the film, especially in Mats’ rationalizing the extraordinary circumstance to both Ebba and Fanni. It is firmly the most amusing moment in the film, cementing Force Majeure as a crisis of the sexes. Feeling as if their criticism of Tomas’ behavior is a universal attack on men, Mats reasons that civilized values may vanish when facing potential catastrophe. In an hilariously misguided attempt to rescue Ebba’s husband, Mats likens Tomas’ moral shirking to an airplane emergency where adults are suggested to secure their own oxygen masks before assisting children. Meanwhile, with further Rashomon overtones, Tomas continues to stress the whole event (or non-event) is all a matter of perspective without much elaboration, hoping that memory will be kind to his blank insistence. However, as the whole vacation’s thunderous plunge proves, that is not the case.

The avalanche of diegetic and non-diegetic noises in its sound design is most remarkable; cannon explosions, whirring of landscaping equipment and the chairlift, and buzzing electric toothbrushes collide amidst the intermittent accordion of Vivaldi’s tensely playful “Summer Concerto.” As Kimberley Jones astutely comments in her Isthmus column, it creates the “sensation of living in a war zone.” Even before the emotional eruptions, the film nails the comically unsettling tone in shots of the landscape augmented with man-made noise. This finds particular relevance in Stephen Holden’s New York Times review, as he suggests that people seem oblivious to real danger in this increasingly modernized world (evident by the fact that people pull out their cell phones to record an avalanche directly in front of them) or foolishly believe they have the ability to conquer the inhospitable. A plethora of films in the last 20 years have predictably dramatized man’s battle with the elements, but few-to-none manage to find an intimacy in the human nature parallel.

If part of the third and fourth days of the holiday feel a bit tangential, shifting entirely from the primary family to Mats and Fanni’s bickering, the scenes effectively convey the obsessive conflict and real consequence that arises from a mere hypothetical scenario. Force Majeure‘s impishness is all about eroding established confidence between people and introducing red herrings that fake certain narrative detours. In the film’s central moments, this works in its favor; but for something so argumentative, the concluding act seems falls back upon an Antonioni-esque irresolution rather than a more appropriately visceral commitment. However, as in the title (an unavoidable event beyond control that frees all parties from liability), Force Majeure delights in misdirection, thus freeing itself from any expectation and obligation.

  • Force Majeure screens FREE at the Union South Marquee this Thurs (9:30p), Fri (5:00p), and Sat (9:00p)