Monday, 13 April 2015

Force Majeure

In an ongoing and fruitless attempt to make The Incredible Suit look like some kind of semi-professional outfit despite all evidence to the contrary, I do generally try to publish film reviews before the film in question is released. Often, though, through tragic oversight on the part of a PR firm or my own staggering laziness, there are films I don't get to see at press screenings. Force Majeure is one such film, and in actual fact I was totally unaware of its very existence until I saw a trailer last week. Sitting down to watch it in the comfort of my own underpants this weekend though (it's on VoD, I didn't go to Cineworld in my grundies), I realised after about half an hour that I was going to have to vomit up some words about it because Force Majeure is easily the best film I've seen this year so far. So apologies for the lateness of all this, although I'm pretty sure that if I hadn't banged on about it for a whole paragraph nobody would have batted an eyelid.

Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund's latest opens with a family being unwillingly coerced into posing for a photograph while on a skiing holiday in the French Alps. It's a tableau that's repeated in skewed versions throughout the film, but each time its meaning has changed dramatically and irrevocably. If the first is a little uncomfortable, it's just the tip of an iceberg of awkwardness that's gradually revealed as the story unfolds.
When a controlled avalanche looks like it might engulf Tomas, his wife Ebba and his kids Harry and Vera, his patriarch status comes under more threat than the lives of his family. It's a terrifying moment (made more so by Östlund's refusal to move his camera or cut away throughout the whole scene), and the relief that nobody is physically hurt at the end of it is palpable. But that relief soon gives way to unease, as if the cascade of snow uncovers a long-buried truth that's been festering for years. "Suddenly it was clear that now something is terribly wrong," Ebba says while describing events in a later scene; she's talking about the avalanche, but the real meaning behind her words is barely disguised.

I may be over-egging the dramatic pudding here; the heart of the story is less sinister and more prosaic than you might be imagining, but Östlund tells his tale with such masterly control of atmosphere that your absorption in Tomas and Ebba's world is total and complete. Stunningly framed long, static shots and near-imperceptibly slow tracks and zooms are paired up with a soundtrack which combines the clanks of ski-slope machinery with the stabs of the final movement of Vivaldi's Summer concerto to menacing effect. Ebba is often shot from behind, yet her mood is never less than entirely clear from everything else in and around the frame.
As the cracks in the family unit widen and discord spreads to other characters like an infectious disease, Östlund's humour - dark as coal against the pristine white snow - transforms his film from sombre chamber piece to wicked black comedy: a cleaner in the family's hotel repeatedly pops up at inopportune moments like a harbinger of disharmony; the sudden appearance of a toy drone in the middle of a tense dialogue scene is rattlingly bizarre, and a scene outside a bar nails the fragile vanity of the fortysomething male with hilarious, excruciatingly-observed accuracy. Even Tomas wailing loudly at his own pathetic impotence elicits an unavoidable snigger.

Told with a measured, deliberate rhythm and an unusual formal approach for such an emotionally charged story (the first closeup comes 45 minutes in, during a painfully private moment for Ebba), Force Majeure is as beautiful and laden with deadly power as the avalanche that triggers its events. It's a sharply incisive examination of modern masculinity - or at least one interpretation of it - and the natural instincts of human beings in survival situations, and it does it with ineffable style, unbearable anxiety and perfectly-pitched LOLs. It's a touch overlong, with perhaps one finale too many, but rarely has being stuck in the uncomfortable claustrophobia of a decaying relationship been quite this enjoyable.

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