Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Force Majeure, a film

I have been contemplating many things about this film since watching it last week. I’ve been thinking about the title, which to an English speaker with no experience with the French language, translated in my mind to “Major Force.” And this seemed to fit the storyline, which follows a young Swedish couple as their ski vacation in France is interrupted by a perceived avalanche. I say perceived because what they witness, as they breakfast on the terrace restaurant of their resort, is a controlled avalanche. But they, and every other diner, believes the threat to be actual. It appears that the mass of snow is about to engulf them. What happens during this perceived emergency and especially what happens after is the focus of director Ruben Ostlund’s lens. With my amateur translation in mind, I’ve been contemplating which is the major force of the film: nature and its catastrophic effects on humans, or human nature itself, which often results in the same.

I have since looked up “force majeure,” which does have a literal translation but is better known for its broader meaning. Force majeure is a common clause used in legal contracts, essentially freeing both parties from liability in the case of an extraordinary event out of their control. Basically, those happenings we might call “acts of God.” The contract of the film would certainly be the marriage of Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli). They are a young yuppie couple with two adorable yet indulged children, and they’ve all come to the mountains to enjoy five days of familial togetherness. The only fissure evident from the beginning is a sense that Ebba thinks her husband spends too much time at work and too much time with his thoughts elsewhere. In an early scene, the beautiful family naps together after a morning of skiing. When Tomas’s cell phone rings, he says he’ll turn it off but moments later, Ebba catches him looking at it. They both chuckle. Soon, their troubles will be much more serious.

Because when that perceived threat comes, when everyone in the restaurant begins to gasp and grab their loved ones at the sight of the snow, cascading down the hill like a big, white wave, what does Tomas do, you ask? Well, he grabs his gloves and phone and runs inside. Alone. After the avalanche, when a white-out of mist has cleared, he sheepishly returns. The children know what he has done. Ebba knows too and while she tries, for a time, to forget it, the vacation takes a turn. Long-standing issues rise to the surface; new ones compete for air.

I loved the slow and deliberate pace of the film, the lingering shots of man’s machinery—the ski lifts, the electric walkways, the vast hotel—and the way the snow pressed in from all sides. I loved Ebba’s valiant efforts to believe something great about her husband, and I even loved the pitiable husband, self-proclaimed victim of his own impulses. All of the acting was superb and the intensity of Ostlund’s gaze into the intricacies of marriage put me in mind of Bergman, of course. And yet, there’s dark comedy in the film too, especially in the scenes with Tomas’s brother Mats (Kristofer Hivju), an alpha male who looks like a Greek god and who is vacationing with his twenty-year-old girlfriend. The movie has much to say about gender roles and the preposterousness of expectations where human behavior is concerned. And the scenery is breathtaking. But best of all, I’ve been thinking about the film and all of its nuances, for days and days. Definitely a must-see.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka