Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review - Force Majeure

If you and your family were faced with a life-threatening situation, how would you react? Would you put yourself in harm's way to protect your loved ones, or would your self-preservation reflexes compel you to flee?

Obviously, the more valorous answer is the one you would give to anyone who asks, but the truth is we never really know which instinct will rule our actions until we're actually faced with a real force majeure. That legalese term for an extraordinary or dangerous circumstance is also the title of Swedish provocateur Ruben Östlund's new dramedy, which probes this hypothetical for some revelations as slippery as a double black diamond ski run.
Östlund sets the scene at a luxury resort in the French Alps, where we meet a seemingly idyllic family: Tomas, Ebba, and their kids Harry & Vera. And yet Östlund suggests that they're not nearly as solid as they let on.

Tomas works too much, Ebba is agitated and the kids lack discipline. An early shot of them ascending a ski slope on a T-bar, each 50 feet from one another, implies a family unit that's already perilously disjointed. And they're about to get walloped.

While dining on a patio, they witness a "controlled" avalanche – some ski resorts fire cannons meant to prevent too much snow accumulation on the slopes – that rapidly turns from a novel photo-op to being too close for comfort. It ultimately stops short of the panicked diners, but Tomas makes a snap decision that lands with even more impact than a speeding wall of snow ever could:

He bolts, leaving his wife and children out in the cold (so to speak).
The ski resort provides a perfect backdrop for the drama that unfolds in the wake of this event; A ubiquitous sea of white that surrounds the characters in every exterior shot, serving to remind us of their close call. Not to mention those assaultive cannons that can be heard booming day and night. The actual avalanche may have come and gone in a fraction of a second, but the ramifications of Tomas' actions linger like a big white elephant in the room.

At first Tomas and Ebba are reluctant to face this trauma, instead officiously negotiating a "unified front" they can put up when telling the story to their friends. Of course, it doesn't take long for that façade to collapse in embarrassing fashion.

Östlund grabs this juicy conflict and runs with it (er.. skis with it, I guess), as his family drama becomes a frosty lampoon of traditional gender roles wherein the masks of comedy and tragedy are eerily similar. His chilly sense of humour is a challenging one, slaloming between cynical satire and outright absurdism.
But the performances are never less than engaging. Johannes Kuhnke brilliantly downplays Tomas' shame and emasculation until his big emotive moment, which is an explosion of dark comic catharsis. Darker yet Lisa Loven Kongsli's performance as Ebba, slowly coming to the bitter realization that she's unwilling to forgive her husband.

Östlund's scene construction captures the best of his cast has to offer. Most scenes are composed of one or two static shots, carefully framed by cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel, and sparsely edited so as to milk each tableau for every possible nuance.

That said, his stylistics will likely test the patience of some, and his insistent use of Vivaldi's Four Seasons concerto "L'estate" ("Summer", ironically) eventually overstays its welcome.

Östlund ultimately leaves it for us to decide if this family walks away from their experience stronger or weaker than before, but his perspective on how strained social conventions are all that keep people together is clear as day. One may choose not to agree with that icy assertion, but it still makes for a swell drama.

***1/2 out of ****

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