“For inspiration on his latest film, Force Majeure, the Swedish director Ruben Östlund made use of an overflowing archive of human behavior, that Alexandria of amateur video: YouTube.” Nicolas Rapold spoke with him about it for a piece that ran in the New York Times last week. “The clip that stuck in his memory starts idyllically: families merrily eat lunch on a mountaintop restaurant in the sunshine. Suddenly, people spot an avalanche rumbling down the mountain, apparently toward them. Chaos erupts. ‘I thought it was so interesting to have those three seconds close together, two very different moods: the thing you want to experience, excitement, and the thing you don’t want to experience, fear of death,’ Mr. Ostlund said… But that hair-raising scenario is just the starting point. Mr. Ostlund’s film takes off from there, and the rest of the movie plays with the effects of human split-second responses—tracing the emotional aftershocks that can come from one decision.”
Boyd van Hoeij sets up this “observed feature” in the Hollywood Reporter: “Apparently unfamiliar with the concept of over-sharing, Swedish skiing tourist Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) explains to another female Scandinavian tourist at a chic Alpine hotel why she’s there with her husband (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and pre-teen kids Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren): ‘We’re here because Tomas works too much; he’s going to dedicate five days to his family.’ At this point, they are still unaware these will be five very long days.”
Variety‘s Peter Debruge notes that Östlund’s “pioneered—and one might argue perfected, this time around—a style in which he shoots scenes from afar on high-resolution digital video and then makes his final decisions on the framing, camera moves and such during his lengthy post-production process. In Östlund’s previous feature, Play, an extended arm’s-length re-creation of a real-life bullying incident, that perceived ambivalence could be excruciating. But in Force Majeure…, the style finally feels justified: It’s Michael Haneke meets Scenes From a Marriage as Östlund chronicles the moment that a couple ceases to see one another in the same way, triggered by a perceived catastrophe in which the father figure’s split-second instinct is one of self-preservation, rather than sacrificing himself to save his clan.”
“When all is said and done, it’s more about him being afraid than being evil,” writes Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa, “but the damage is done and the entire family balance has been put off kilter. Denying it completely in very public confrontations, Tomas will have to take responsibility for a deed that consequently brings to the surface a range of other lies about a life that seemed perfect at first glance.”
“It’s only when Östlund starts to pull his punches that the slow-roll terror of the film comes to a stop,” finds the Guardian‘s Henry Barnes. “The director heads off the slopes into Lars von Trier territory—drawing out dark comedy from a pair of friends’ role as unwitting jury to Tomas’s crime. Although Kristofer Hivju puts in a boisterous performance as Tomas’s confidante and protector (‘You were probably thinking you should be safe so you could come back and dig them out, right Tomas?’) the comic relief feels false set against so much stark humanity.”
“Östlund’s fourth feature is his best yet,” declares Lee Marshall in Screen Daily. “Imperfect human behavior is still under the microscope here, as in the director’s previous work, but though at times he likes to watch his specimens wriggle on pins, or stick pins into each other, there’s a new sense of compassion as well as a striking visual unity in this new film – with cinematographer [Fredrik] Wenzel doing a superb job of framing the comedie humaine against indifferent nature in a series of razor-sharp fixed-camera shots.”
Update, 5/21: For Notebook editor Daniel Kasman, “while Force Majeure has a supreme mastery of form and control of audience and subject to make it a calling card for this immensely smart and talented filmmaker, the nature of its form takes uncomfortable liberties with the audience’s superiority to what amounts nearly, as with Play, to a formal cinematic experiment carried out before our eyes. Knowingness and the unknown for both the characters in the film and the viewers watching the film is a critical aspect of the director’s last two movies, which can lead into dangerous territory of expensing the human and spiritual subjects for the sake of a successfully enacted and communicated experiment upon them.”
Updates, 5/22: “I exited the theater surprised Force majeure wasn’t competing for the Palme d’Or,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland. “It’s as strong as, if not stronger than, most of what’s in the main lineup.”
Cue Nick Roddick, dispatching to Sight & Sound: “Rumor has it that Östlund‘s refusal to trim the scene where Tomas breaks down and weeps uncontrollably cost him a Competition slot. If so, good for him. He’s a master at placing his actors in front of the camera—sometimes solo (like the crying scene), more often in pairs (on a bed, on a sofa, at a restaurant table)—and drawing out their emotional car crashes, then deflating the scene with a moment of comedy. The scene here which features an invading toy flying saucer has been one of the best comic moments at this year’s festival.”
Update, 5/23: “Östlund has become an almost brutal satirist of his countrymen’s foibles, presumptions and hidden prejudices, like Bergman with a more wicked streak,” writes the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey. “He drops his films like slow-ticking stinkbombs into the comfy art-houses of Stockholm…. Mightily clever in its rather theatrical structure, but bracingly cinematic in its formal approach, the movie has a bold, ambiguous final act where the family are placed twice again in potentially dire straits. Though Östlund, a glacial and ever-more-confident stylist, never pushes his own metaphors too far, we’ll add one: this family are skiing down a black run into a blacker chasm.”
Update, 5/26: “The husband’s flight reflex is explored not just as a personal act of cowardice but as an abdication of his social role as the father,” writes Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay. “Indeed, the film is ambiguous over whether the act has exposed any kind of ‘true self.’ Rather, the challenge it presents is one of perception and role-playing, with both husband and wife wondering whether they can recover the fictions they both lost in that dramatic moment. Smartly, those fictions include not just the dynamics of the nuclear family but also comfortable Western neoliberalism as the ripple of the husband’s act affects not just his wife and children but other one-percenters too.”
Update, 5/28: For the Playlist‘s Jessica Kiang, “it’s edge is so keen, and its movements so deft that it’s not till you’re out the cinema and up the road that you realize how cutting it was.”
Update, 10/23: “Östlund has with Force Majeure happened upon the perfect union of silly metaphor and chilly atmosphere,” writes Michael Koresky at Reverse Shot. “It’s one of those films that critics are apt to praise as a ‘dissection,’ so eagerly does it slice open its characters to lay bare their fears, desires, and hypocrisies. Yet for Östlund, unlike perhaps Michael Haneke, a clear inspiration for his films, you have to be cruel to be kind, and Force Majeure is not just another takedown of bourgeois privilege, but rather an identifiably humane portrait of the crippling shame bred by socially prescribed gender roles.”
More from Abhimanyu Das (Slant, 3.5/4), A.A. Dowd (AV Club, A-) and Scott Tobias (Dissolve, 4.5/5).
Updates, 10/24: At RogerEbert.com, Godfrey Cheshire notes that, in his research, Östlund discovered that “couples who survive disasters like shipwrecks, tsunamis and such, and found that a strikingly high percentage of them end up divorcing.” So:
Taking the idea of a sudden upset of familial normality as his dramatic kernel, Östlund fashions an examination of marital upset that’s beautifully written, sometimes quite funny, and plotted with a kind of forensic exactitude. Unlike American movies, where our identification with one character or another would likely be imposed from the outset, Force Majeure stands back from its couple, allowing us to inspect the characters from a discreet distance and draw our own conclusions.
It is important, however, both dramatically and symbolically, that there are not two equal “truths” at work here. The wife alone is right about what happened at that fateful lunch (as a second viewing of the film will confirm). So the story is not about anything so fashionable as the relativity of truth. It’s about what happens when one partner blatantly fails in his duties to his family and then can’t admit or come to terms with that offense.
More from David Edelstein (New York), Carson Lund, Dana Stevens (Slate) and Ella Taylor (NPR).
Updates, 10/25: “Does any residue of the Viking spirit still exist in the modern father dutifully pushing a baby stroller through the streets of Stockholm?” asks Francine Prose, writing for the New York Review of Books. “Like the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic novel-memoir—I found myself thinking of Östlund’s film as My Struggle on Ice—Force Majeure suggests that this question is very much on the minds of Scandinavian men, who live in countries where the concept of gender equality is deeply embedded in the social system. Or men everywhere, for all I know. What do males expect of themselves at this historical moment, and what do women want from them? In the film, as in life, questions of masculinity collect around blunt manifestations of bravery and fear, and around confrontations with nature, regardless of how civilized people think they are. A final twist near the end underlines the extent to which our notions of freedom, courage, and the survival instinct are privately and publicly determined along gender lines.”
“Force Majeure is a prickly moral comedy for grown-ups, full of sharply observed moments, spectacular scenery and masterfully manipulated atmosphere,” writes Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir. “This is very much a work of 21st-century global culture, but also one that draws on the great cinematic tradition of northern Europe, with hints of Ingmar Bergman, Eric Rohmer and Michael Haneke.”
Update, 10/28: David Lowery at the Talkhouse Film: “This film is not an essay; there is no hypothesis stated, no conclusion drawn. Rather, Östlund establishes a controlled environment, introduces a catalyst and then, for 100 or so minutes, examines the results, while his bemusement rings as loud and clear as the Vivaldi violin strains that predicate it…. Moment by moment, the film is a comedy; en totale, it is still a comedy, though one with faint underpinnings of tragedy that a less confident director might have leaned upon more heavily.”
Updates, 11/2: Stephen Saito interviews Östlund.
“The genius of the writing is attributable to its absolute humanity and honesty,” writes Zhuo-Ning Su for Film International. “It looks all the flaws, frailties and embarrassing traits of our race straight in the eyes and mocks them without mercy…. Like an Ian McEwan novel, it capitalizes on the power of extraordinary circumstances to shake us out of the protective shell of morals or self-discipline, and follows with sharp insight how fundamentally decent people can end up hurting one another so much when acting on largely blameless instincts. As the movie progresses, you can literally feel the invisible footing on which a relationship and family stands loosen like cracks spreading through ice- a tingling, anticipatory, gloriously ominous feeling.”
Updates, 11/7: “Not just about the treacherous slopes of marriage, Force Majeure grapples with the puncturing impact of compromise,” writes Glenn Heath Jr. for the San Diego CityBeat. “While leading your family into the oblivion is more courageous than staying silently mired in the muck of your own ego, both options are based in delusion.”
More from Winifred Reilly and Ryan Lattanzio at EatDrinkFilms. And Marjorie Baumgarten talks with Östlund for the Austin Chronicle.
Update, 11/15: For Donna K., writing at Hammer to Nail, “what makes Force Majeure even eerier is the realization that the strange world unfolding on screen is an all too familiar one. Director Östlund sees the contemporary family unit as a mundane form of torture, and happiness as a gorgeous, unattainable surface of a dream. It is his creation of this surface, with the repression and laughter hiding below it, that makes this one of the best narrative features I have seen in quite a while; it teeters on the brink of a new style of filmmaking altogether.”
Updates, 11/23: Force Majeure is “even better on a second viewing, when its dramatic craft is more apparent yet even more compelling,” writes Ray Pride in Newcity Film. “A ticklish mix of Billy Wilder (visual wit and verbal precision are deployed adroitly), Luis Buñuel (the amazing final scene) and Scandinavian modern exactness, Force Majeure thrills for its biting wit as well as its portrayal of how the smallest choice, the most seemingly minor gesture, can be as dramatically calamitous and emotionally revealing as the heights of drama.”
This is “a squrimingly funny deadpan comedy of emasculation,” writes Sean Burns for North Shore Movies, but at the same time, “there aren’t any actual jokes, per se. The pitch-black humor erupts at odd moments during awkward pauses, prompted by Östlund’s droll, dispassionate gaze at all these roiling caveman emotions tamped down for appearances’ sake in such a fussy, affluent locale.”
Erik Henriksen in the Stranger: “Gradually, almost imperceptibly, Östlund transforms Ebba and Tomas’s upscale vacation haven from something warm and welcoming to a cold, alien prison; its air, crisp and clear, grows loud not with chatter but with the thudding, soulless echoes of the resort’s clattering machinery. Life is pain, even in the gorgeous French Alps.”
For Robert Horton, writing in the Herald, “the interesting thing about Force Majeure… is the sly suggestion that maybe this event could have a liberating effect on the family. In the curious but wonderful final sequence, this might be what’s happening. At some point, everybody’s problems are laid bare, and there’s nothing left to do but walk on into the future.”
Interview: Ruben Östlund – Force Majeure from IONCINEMA.com
Updates, 11/29: “While Force Majeure focuses most of its attention on the failings of men, especially bourgeois men, it ranges over the whole of humanity, contrasting our social constructs with our primal instincts,” writes Marilyn Ferdinand. “Modern conveniences, including exquisitely appointed apartments for the well-heeled vacationer, insulate this family from the snowy, rocky environment they have chosen to visit. Yet they depend on funiculars, chair lifts, covered conveyor belts, and tow chains get them to and from the ski runs—the effect is similar to Charlie Chaplin threading helplessly through a series of giant gears in Modern Times (1936).”
Update, 12/12: “In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund is the first major US retrospective of the Swedish filmmaker,” reports Ryan Lattanzio at Thompson on Hollywood. “Focusing on the shorts and features from the first 10 years of his career, the retrospective launches a 15 city tour at Los Angeles’ The Cinefamily on January 9th and New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center on January 14. Östlund will appear in person at special screenings in New York; Los Angeles; AFI Silver Theatre in Maryland; and at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.”
Update, 12/30: “Östlund is exploring crisis in the family, but he also has bigger questions in his sights,” writes Michael Sicinski in the Nashville Scene. “Like Force Majeure, [Play is] a contest of masculine modes that is really an indictment of Scandinavian liberalism and its hypocrisies. In Play, a group of black kids bullies a group of white kids in Stockholm, but the white kids are so steeped in political correctness that they can’t ask for help, a fact the black kids knowingly exploit. Too much sensitivity—oh, to have Sweden’s problems!”
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