If you want to see a simple drama that dissects themes of human nature, Mother Nature, and everything that goes wrong when they cross, I highly implore you to check out Force Majeure, a new drama/comedy film from Swedish director Ruben Östlund. In it, we find a family (the parents, Tomas and Ebba, and the children, Vera and Harry) arriving at a luxurious resort in the heart of the French Alps in what is to be a glorious, weeklong getaway for skiing. It all goes awry during a nice lunch at an outdoor diner when an avalanche that should be “controlled” seems to be a little more dangerous than initially expected. At first, Tomas assures his children and significant other that it’s nothing to worry about, that the avalanche is surely being controlled and guarded by security or other forms of authorities. But when the descending bulk of snow nears to them, he scrambles in fear, leaving his family behind. This simple act of human instinct, the will to survive that is inside all of us, is what instigates the remaining conflicts of the film.
This isn’t necessarily a layered drama, and by that I mean that there isn’t a lot to follow as far as events in the script. It’s pretty straightforward. Where it is layered is in its emotional content. After hastily departing in fear of being flattened by the avalanche, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnkeis, in a great performance with as many emotional layers as the film itself) is soon faced with animosity from his family, who sees it as an act of carelessness and neglect. His wife (an equally stellar Lisa Loven Kongsli, doing some terrific work as the wife that just wants her husband to be supportive and protective) turns against him. She calls him out on his cowardice during dinner with friends, an act that walks the line of being understandable from her character or sympathetic for his. As human beings, we can relate with Tomas. He acted in defense of his own body, succumbing to his survival instincts to do whatever he can to preserve his life. On the other hand, we as a culture and civilization have conducted and carried out this need to be there for our families. It’s important in maintaining relationships and familial bonds, so on that front, we sympathize with Ebba. The film has a mesmerizing way of seeding these deep philosophical arguments through a simple act of nature, and allowing the effects to unfold through dramatic representation.
With this ongoing conflict playing out in the forefront, the children are there to observe, and sometimes affect, the situation. Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren) just want their parents to stay together (what child wouldn’t?) and the two actors that portray them give surprisingly good performances that have layers, once again. Other players that show up in this story are Matts (Kristofer Hivju, from Game of Thrones, rocking a truly admirable beard) and Fanni (Fanni Metelius), a couple which is friends with our two leading actors. They come into the story, try to help, but ultimately find themselves affected by the infecting situation. I was a big fan of their involvement in the story.
Enveloping the center story is the physical environment: the frigid and snowy terrain of the French Alps. Being a sucker for snow and the beauty of its transitioning to the screen, it’s not really a surprise for me to tell you that I loved the way the movie looked. The snowy mountains look gorgeous in backdrop, but it isn’t just the snow. The cinematography itself by Fredrik Wenzel is first-rate, even in the scenes that don’t involve snow, but simple character developmental situations indoors. It all looks great.
I mentioned it in my review for Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and I’ll touch a little more on it here. This film has subtitles. What do you expect? It’s Swedish. Nothing irks me more than when people refuse to see a movie or, even more so, complain about a movie because of subtitles. You can’t expect all movies to be made in America, nor can you expect all filmmakers to be American. That’s just stupid. Foreign films are sometimes the best, and Ruben Östlund’s new film is no exception. This is a funny (sometimes hilarious), emotionally devastating, and completely engaging philosophical study of what it means to be a family, what it means to be a human being, and what happens when instincts take over morals. It’s a wonderful film, and it’s one of the year’s best.
Rated R for some language and brief nudity
Cast: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius
Written and directed by Ruben Östlund
Photo credits: nytimes.com, indiewire.com, RogerEbert.com
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