Vicious, dark and extraordinarily slow, Ruben Östlund's deconstruction of masculinity and the nuclear family won't quite be to everyone's tastes, but its beautifully measured, low-key tragedy is definitely a sight to behold.
Sweden’s official entry into this year’s Oscar race (making the shortlist but just missing out on a nomination), and a Cannes favourite the year before, Ruben Östlund’s latest delectably dark comedy covers a great deal of new ground in relation to family politics, and in the process boasts a very Scandinavian sense of humour. Fans of the slow-burn gather round, this one’s really quite special.
Force Majeure (named for the legal term of the same name) charts a week in the life of a middle-class Swedish family holidaying in the Alps, whose lives are changed one lunch-time after a controlled avalanche on the mountain goes awry. With a seemingly huge snow cloud racing towards them, mother Ebba instinctively dives to save her young children, whilst her husband Tomas has other plans, dashing away and leaving the family behind to secure his own safety. In the wake of such cowardice, the general structure of the family gradually begins to dissolve, pitting parent against parent in an unescapable face-off which threatens to ruin both the family’s holiday and their future as a household unit.
Despite some rather dramatic phrasing there, what becomes very clear about Force Majeure from its very opening is that it is anything but. It is worth stating up front that this is far removed from the typical Hollywood-style family drama most audiences have come to expect, where plate-flinging and encroached screaming are a backbone to the conflict. Instead, Östlund’s style is devoutly Swedish and is, as a consequence of this, almost painfully understated, opting for a slow-burning and ultimately low-key take on the expected hostilities.
Arguments are largely whispered and distant, with the gradual decline in Ebba and Tomas’s relationship being just that – gradual. There is no breaking point per-say, just the gentle and unavoidable collapse of a marriage; the equivalent of watching a high-speed car crash in super slow motion. The winning result of such an approach is of course then a genuine sense of realism. Incredibly well-strung performances and Östlund’s own devout patience in both his scripting and his photography create a bizarrely lifelike scenario that’s insanely difficult to turn away from. Questions of instinct and of masculinity are raised and pondered, whilst the family’s situation itself – two young children caught in an unescapable limbo between their confused, warring parents – remains quietly heartbreaking.
Yet, as slow and as subdued as Force Majeure may often seem, it is also built upon a truly wicked sense of humour, derived largely from the preposterousness of humanity itself. Driven slightly insane by his flash of gutlessness, Tomas finds himself stripped of his traditional role, tumbling unceremoniously into a state of total abandonment. Fighting back the tears, he begins to seize every opportunity to regain his status as the masculine hero of the family, with frankly hilarious results. Östlund’s comedy may not prove to be a highlight for everyone – in fact many may look beyond its dark tones and simply accept the drama on its painful face value – but it does provide an ever-so-slightly lighter take on an otherwise crushing drama.
As beautifully built and acted as it is, Force Majeure is definitely not a film which will engage with a particularly large audience. Whereas family turmoil itself is a relatively easy topic to translate, the film’s snail-like pace and cruel humour is less so. Fans of Roy Andersson and the dark heart of Scandinavian film will find a lot to love here, but Östlund’s festival-favourite may prove too tedious and understated in its reveals to convert non-followers to its cause.
Force Majeure (2014), directed by Ruben Östlund, is distributed in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray disc by Artificial Eye, Certificate 15.