Before I divulge any of Force Majeure’s secrets I’ll mention that if you want to be wooed by the movie’s many pleasures, you should go in completely blind. As audiences, we’re too used to knowing the plots and beats of a movie before we see them. If you know nothing about this film, stay that way. You’ll thank me later.
This haunting, slickly funny, and even warm film was robbed of it’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. It’s just better than nominees and frontrunners Ida and Leviathan (which are great too).
The Swedish film opens with stunning cinematography of a ski resort in the French Alps, and lands on a family of four taking a photo. Its opening moments are grand and operatic, and close with an exclamation point of comedy. That’s the rhythm most of the movie dances to: high-drama, building tension, and then an unexpected laugh.
This family is your run of the mill, wealthy, white, and beautiful unit. They all use electric toothbrushes and eat ice cream in bed, and there’s a real tenderness to all of their interactions. They’re good people as far as we can tell.
Their normal family vacation takes a nasty turn after an avalanche nearly obliterates the ski-lodge at lunch hour. It’s a harrowing scene that comes completely out of left field and leaves the viewer stunned. In a ‘what would you do’ scenario, the mother accuses father of flight instead of fight, and not protecting her or their children. Her anger at him, and his denial or misremembering of the event, is the crux for the next hour and 45 minutes.
The tension between the family grows at a slow boil, pronounced by moments of fury and a compounded sense of guilt, responsibility, and isolation. It’s built on everyday moments snowballing to psychological unhinging.
Writer/Director Ruben Östlund is a master of juggling tonal shifts and subverting your expectations. A tension-building scene where the mother is acting as witness, jury, and judge in front of mutual friends, is stopped dead in its tracks by a speeding mini-drone flying into the scene. Their young son, who’s just playing with his toy while his parents are in a heated argument, controls the drone. This moment and many more are timed perfectly to make you switch gears from suspense and shock to laughing hysterically. In moments like that, Östlund is slyly satirizing the family and their very real if mundane problems. No doubt he’s a fan of other European auteurs that have jabbed the 1% with comedic barbs, like Jean Renoir in 1939’s The Rules of the Game, and Luis Buñuel in 1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
You really feel the sense of isolation of being in a ski resort with the family, and it escalates when the tense pre-heat of emotions slowly dials up to a full broil. Dramas that revolve around realistic under-the-surface tension rarely have crowd-pleasing endings, because they want to play out like real life. And real life rarely feels like cinema. But Östlund closes his family epic with a scene that turns the table on the whole situation in a most satisfying and even hopeful way.
The acting from everyone involved (including the kids) is excellent. Movie Pilot readers will recognize the bearded Kristofer Hivju who plays Tormund Giantsbane in HBO’s Game of Thrones. The kick-ass widescreen cinematography had me wishing the film were shown in IMAX. When’s the last time you thought that about a foreign drama?
If you don’t fear subtitles, and are a fan of character dramas with a subversive edge, Force Majeure is a stunner and doesn’t make one false move. Put on your reading glasses, gather your loved ones around a cozy fire, and prepare to squirm in the best way possible.
Don’t miss on Blu-Ray February 10th from Magnolia Pictures.