' ' Cinema Romantico: Force Majeure

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Force Majeure

Family photos have long struck this reviewer as disingenuous. They seem so contrived, so designed to get fathers and mothers and sons and daughters done up in clothes they would never wear and to sit or stand or uncomfortably, inauthentically kneel and to obey literal barked commands of "smile!" rather than simply allowing those smiles to form of their own volition. The family photo was the Facebook photo before Facebook. SEE HOW HAPPY WE ARE?! Not for nothing then does "Force Majeure", director Ruben Östlund austered Swedish drama chock full of uneasy laughs, open with images of its obligatory family of four posing for portrait to reassure themselves that, dammit, they really are happy.

That portrait takes place on a mountainside vista amidst the pristine French Alps at a luxury ski resort where Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) have brought their adolescent son and daughter because the whole purpose of a luxury ski resort is to forget your troubles and kick up powder. The artificiality of the entire excursion is slyly underlined by the resort's "controlled" avalanches, employed to keep the handsome trails properly groomed. Eventually, however, as the family sits down for a scenic meal at an outdoor restaurant, one of those "controlled" avalanches, mirroring the force majeure of the title, becomes a little un-controlled and the story kicks into gear.

As clouds of snow billow down where they sit, Tomas pulls a Costanza - that is, when George Costanza of "Seinfeld" realized the hamburgers at the little kid's birthday caught on fire and he un-heroically fled, leaving everyone, women and children and birthday clowns, behind. The avalanche of "Force Majeure" doesn't really get out of control, it just appears to, and yet it still allows a pulling back of the curtain on Tomas's real inner nature. He abandons his wife and kids, tucking tail and running, and then comes sauntering back like nothing happened.

"Relationships that start under intense circumstances," Annie Porter once observed, "they never last." The same could be said of relationships that suddenly face intense circumstances, such as your spouse running for his life rather than laying down his for the kids. This telling reaction rattles Ebba. At first, she bottles it up, until she has a couple glasses of wine at which point she can't help but mention it, telling their friends, also staying at the resort, whether they want to hear it or not. And each time she does, Tomas denies her version of events. He doesn't remember fleeing as she reached for and covered her kids. Ah, but he should know better than anyone this is the iPhone age, and in the iPhone age there can be no "Rashomon."

"Force Majeure" quickly, and thankfully, casts aside its he said/she said predicament to mine for richer territory within the male psyche and the dynamics of relationships. As Tomas, Bah Kuhnke comes equipped with a kind of vacancy in his eyes, as if he's been detached from this marital union since the cake got sliced, and when Ebba confronts him on his cowardice, he retreats to watch TV with his daughter, like a little kid who never really grew up no matter how money he (obviously) makes.

One of the eeriest passages of the year finds Tomas and his mountain-manish brother (Kristofer Hivju) reclining after a day on the slopes and an attractive lady bringing him a beer at the behest of her just-as-attractive friend. Tomas puffs out his chest. Except, as it happens, the just-as-attractive friend meant for that beer to go to someone else and awkardness ensues and then a showing of feathers in lieu of an actual fight when a couple fellas intervene, and to see the ego of a couple dudes get so publically shattered and how pitifully they react painfully exposes the male ego for the giant bag of wind it really is.

Not that the film forsakes Ebba. Not at all. As aloof and unconnected as her husband seems, her pain and confusion comes across far more immediate and appreciable. She has drinks with a friend (Clara Wettergren) who expressly talks of her open marriage in spite of their kids. Ebba can't square with this notion. Isn't marriage supposed to be monogamous? Isn't that in the vows? She keeps going back to it and her friend dismisses these ideas of one sexual partner for the rest of your life like she's just lost a game of drunken backgammon. This, we're made to wonder, is what we have to look forward to with everlasting love?

"Force Majeure's" arty, mysterial conclusion takes place aboard a bus as it ferrys a gaggle of tourists, including our main characters, down the winding, twisting mountains in a sequence that is awe-inspiring in its queasiness and simply-rendered terror. It's as stomach-churning as anything in "Gravity", the way Östlund plants those snow-capped peaks right in our faces in the window to make it seem as if we all might go tumbling down them together. And this slow-moving rollercoaster taken in conjunction with the subsequent scene seem, in their own way, to epitomize the very notion of marriage as one chock full of potential calamities that must be narrowly averted.

Happily ever after cedes the roadway to an uncertain forward march.

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