‘Force Majeure’ Doesn’t Live Up to Hype

by Brett Steinbrink on November 22, 2014

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Rock Fist Way Down]

Once upon a time I wanted to become a lawyer.

I tell you this because any lawyer could tell you that “force majeure” (from French, meaning “superior force”) is a legal term meaning that when an “act of God” such as fire, hurricane, earthquake, war, avalanche, etc. occurs, neither party is at fault for fulfilling their obligations under a given contract. Similarly, when an avalanche interrupts the lunch of a family on holiday at a French ski resort, the husband is accused by his wife of abandoning them in his attempts to get away.

Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, Force Majeure has been selected as the Swedish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards in February 2015. Unfortunately in my humble opinion, the film fails to really engage the viewer in any meaningful discussion or portrait of a family in the midst of crisis, and leaves you not with a feeling of conclusion, but with confusion.

Taking place over a 5-day stay at a French ski resort Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and his children Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) are taking some family time after Tomas has had some grueling months at work. We open with a resort employee taking family pictures, and then see the family half-asleep in one big bed, tired from a day of skiing. Multiple times, we see pipes on the mountain in seemingly-unrelated shots, helping to spur manmade avalanches for the resort, and fresh snow to adorn the much-used slopes. Each night, we’re welcomed with a shot of the family brushing their teeth together in front of the mirror, preparing for bed, though sometimes it’s just Ebba and Tomas. So after the avalanche incident of day two, friends of the family, Mats and Fanny (Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius) arrive at the resort.  Ebba decides on day three that she will ski alone, and in the evening, the two couples drink wine together and all the feelings about Tomas finally spill out of Ebba, with Mats and Fanny awkwardly trapped in the middle.

I’ll spare you the rest, because frankly, it’s not that interesting, and becomes less cohesive as the two hours wear on.

My big gripe about this film is the way that it’s meant to try to paint a 5-day portrait of a marriage in crisis, however the scenes feel so disjointed and nonsensical that you don’t get much of a sense that Tomas and Ebba get anywhere beyond agreeing that Tomas isn’t a great husband.  The ending (which I won’t spoil the details of) doesn’t really give you an indication as to whether they will split up or carry on being unhappy, because nobody shows much of an interest in changing their ways.

The big positive I will give this film is its cinematography. It’s simply a gorgeous, well-shot film all around, and cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel is to be commended. Östlund has chosen to do 95% of his film focusing on long takes instead of cutting frequently, and the long takes really help to emphasize the fact that this family is growing apart, that there is “space” between them, just as there is “space” between cuts. However, the editing and transitional audio left a lot to be desired, as often between scenes we’re treated to this obnoxious, jarring, and terrible short clip of organ and accordion music. It doesn’t really do anything to help the mood of the film or try to foreshadow something sinister, but it just makes me think that maybe Östlund is trying too hard to be artsy instead of spending that time developing his screenplay further.

But also: Wes Anderson called, he wants his tropes back.

I don’t need to be beaten over the head with the end result of a film, however I do expect the screenwriter and/or director to at least give me the tools to know what the film is about. I pored over my notes and rewatched a scene or two during my screening and for the life of me I can’t figure out what the movie is really supposed to be about.

Maybe something was lost in translation with the subtitles (it is in Swedish, after all), or maybe Östlund is trying a little too hard to make some implications in the film that I’m not picking up on, but the fact remains that Force Majeure could use a little more of the raw power of the avalanche that sparks the problems of the film, and a little less organ music dancing frantically around the point of the film. And frankly, for a “comedy,” it really wasn’t very funny.

Brett is a recent graduate of the University of Kansas, with dual degrees in Film & Media Studies and History. He enjoys watching sports, playing video games, and watching too many movies/television programs. If you’re looking for someone to quote “Friends” at you, give you a detailed outline of Franco-American foreign relations during the 1790′s, or make a lame pun… he’s probably your go-to guy.

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