Yesterday /bent talked about a handful of queer-interest films in this year’s foreign language film race, but there’s one outside that box that we’re also really enthusiastic about: Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure.”
Introducing the film in Toronto a few weeks ago, Östlund offered two precedent objectives with which himself and his team set out to make the movie: 1) To construct the greatest avalanche scene in film history, and 2) To heighten society’s divorce rates. This manifesto was, of course, announced a bit tongue-in-cheek. Now I haven’t witnessed every avalanche over our 12 decades of cinema, and I’ll have to wait some years into the future before post-“Force Majeure” break-up statistics become available. That being said, “Force Majeure” is such a fine piece of work that I would not be the least bit surprised if Mr. Östlund and his crew, in some way or another, achieved their goal.
Sweden hasn’t won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film since Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” in ’83. His 1973 telefilm “Scenes from a Marriage,” 10 years a predecessor of the Oscar-winner and ranking only 2nd in terms of length and ambition, became notorious for allegedly inspiring a spike in Scandinavian divorce rates. This calls to the forefront a seemingly Swedish trend: the movies, like its people, are fond of challenging social norms and constructs.
Blanketed under the guise of a nuclear Swedish family on vacation at a fancy ski resort in the French Alps, “Force Majeure” questions just these social codes and moral ambiguities. Shaken by an avalanche that appeared to be more of a threat than it really was, the family is unable to recuperate when mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) confronts her husband Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) about the way he acted in the moment of crisis. It’s a skilled blend of art house fare and family drama, and a film the Academy should be recognizing come awards season. If you’re not already convinced, here are some reasons why:
It’s a conversation piece
The sight of a perfect marriage tearing apart at the seams is surely one that induces a reaction in all. The film also examines class, what’s expected of mother vs. father in a family unit, and the animal instinct to survive. These dilemmas that define what it is to be or not be a human being should possess the essential amount of profundity to earn “Force Majeure” a spot among the roster of AA nominees. It’s tough to leave the cinema and keep your mouth shut after this one.
It’s unexpectedly hilarious
Let’s not fool ourselves — we don’t always expect the ‘Prix du jury’ winner in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes to be a knee-slapper. But “Force Majeure” really is. Alongside its depth and emotional turmoil there are a number of laugh-out-loud sequences that should increase the film’s accessibility to the international market and to Academy voters. My favourite: Tomas is kicking back with a drink and an acquaintance after a rough argument with his wife and some therapeutic screaming. A younger woman approaches to tell him that her friend thinks he’s the cutest guy at the resort; as the rave-y song in the background crescendoes Tomas thanks her and evidently feels euphoric. She returns moments after: “Oh, sorry! My friend was pointing to someone else. She didn’t mean you. That was my fault, sorry!”
The leads really do feel like a married couple who cannot stand each other
Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli master verisimilitude as the opposing arcs of father and mother, husband and wife. It’s the little things: Ebba telling another vacationer that their holiday is serving as a getaway from Tomas’ busy schedule, and Tomas mumbling that he wasn’t aware that was its purpose; the disapproval in Ebba’s face as she hears of another woman’s open relationship policy with her husband, but also the inner longing for a taste of what that may be like. It’s also the big things: “Force Majeure” has its fair share of outbursts where the tension snaps and all is laid out, portrayed perfectly by the two leads.
Sometimes it feels as if you’re watching “The Shining”
The alpine retreat setting is always gorgeous to look at, thanks to the crystal clear cinematography of Fredrik Wenzel. As in his previous feature “Play,” Östlund prefers not to bring the camera too close to his actors and instead frames picturesque long shots in which the action can unfold. The characters appear small and trivial in relation to the looming white fields of snow and the stretching hotel corridors, which is reminiscent of “The Shining” — especially amidst a recurring string excerpt from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” that transforms shots of the family members side-by-side in the mirror with electric toothbrushes in their mouths into a portrait of a fam who could be at each other’s throats in a split second.
Ruben Östlund is heir to the throne held by many of our beloved European auteurs
The writer-director’s first gig in the industry was shooting and compiling films of ski competitions. In going back, back, back to his roots, Östlund has crafted a tour de force that carries him up that chair lift and drops him at the top to reign as king of the mountain. Still quite young for the four features under his belt and their collective awards, Ruben’s oeuvre is sure to grow as his name becomes synonymous, for thinking moviegoers at least, as an artist who points at issues and leaves the solving of them up to us.
It’s been a big year for Swedish cinema. Roy Andersson’s final entry in his trilogy on life, “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” became the first film of its nation to ever win the esteemed Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. “Force Majeure” has been sold to over 40 countries and opens in the United States next month. The only opinion we’re now awaiting is that of the unforgiving, habitually wrong Academy’s. If they agree with the critics, audiences and film fest juries, then perhaps Sweden will get its Oscar once again.