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New Release Review - Force Majeure

A moment of narcissism leads to an uncomfortable family vacation.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ruben Ostlund

Starring: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju



If you've ever holidayed in Europe, or indeed if you happen to live in a location popular with tourists, you'll have encountered those model Scandinavian families, all perfect bone structure, beautiful children and expensive rainwear (the latter often in spite, rather than because of the climate). Swedish writer-director Ruben Ostlund, whose nihilistic outlook on life makes Michael Haneke's work seem positively Spielbergian, gives us one such family in Force Majeure, peeling away the layers of their seemingly charmed existence like a freckled tyke plucking the wings off a captured butterfly.
Thirtysomethings Tomas (Stephen Dorff lookalike Kuhnke) and Ebba (Michelle Forbes lookalike Kongsli) arrive in the French Alps for a week long skiing holiday with their young sprogs Vera and Harry. All goes well, as you suspect it always has for this particular family, until the second day when, during breakfast at an outdoor restaurant, a distant avalanche appears. At first Tomas insists everything is fine - "It's a controlled avalanche!" - and begins filming the event with his phone. As the white cloud grows larger and begins to make its way towards the restaurant, panic sets in and Tomas runs for his life, leaving his family behind. Luckily for them, it was a controlled avalanche, and no harm was done. Unluckily for Tomas, he's forced to spend the next six days in the company of Ebba, who is none too happy with his reaction in time of crisis.
The setup of Ostlund's film sounds like a lost episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but there's one key distinction. In that show, Larry David's screen persona is essentially a narcissist, one well equipped to deal with such situations. Tomas, however, is, despite his moment of cowardice, a genuinely good guy torn apart by his own actions as much as by his wife's increasingly cold shoulders. Initially he attempts to make light of the situation, passing it off as a case of differing perspectives, but lacking David's disarming natural wit, this only drives Ebba further away from him, and it's not long before her passive aggression becomes decidedly less passive.
Compared to his previous features - Involuntary and Play - Force Majeure represents a move towards the mainstream for Ostlund. The distancing technique of a static camera employed previously employed by Ostlund, - which resembled a Tom & Jerry cartoon, so often were characters viewed from the waist down - is for the most part dropped here in favour of more conventional setups. Where his previous dramas felt like a human safari expedition, Force Majeure is a visit to a petting zoo, putting the tortured face of Tomas front and centre.
Delivering an avalanche of cringe-comedy, Ostlund packs more twisted laughs into his uncomfortable drama than the entire comic output of Hollywood likely will furnish us with for the rest of the year. His film differs from standard comedies in that none of its characters are funny in themselves; it's the situation that's amusing. Force Majeure is a sitcom in its purest form, albeit one of a decidedly dark nature. It's landscape may be white, but its humour is black as night.




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