Force Majeure

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Movie a Day Blog looks forward to the Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film competition as much as any aspect of the Oscars. Watching the films different countries nominate, sometimes for artistic and sometimes for political reasons, is a fascinating exploration of global cinema.

A strong contender for this year’s slate of five nominees has to be FORCE MAJEURE (2014), the Swedish entry that confirms cinema’s role in transcending nationality and language in favor of universal experience, both positive and negative. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund crafts a finely-tuned tale of personal betrayal, shame and anger that keeps viewers consistently on edge.

The setting is deceptively simple, but the tone is ominous from the film’s first scenes, aided by Ola Flotum’s bass-heavy score. An upper-middle class Swedish family of four are vacationing in the Swiss Alps, next to a breathtaking vista that is tamed for ski trials by the use of small, controlled avalanches. The opening features some skiing on the slopes, a leisurely brunch on the resort’s terrace overlooking the mountain.

Suddenly a controlled avalanche becomes uncontrolled, and advances on the resort with deceptive, then alarming speed, and we feel as if all our fears are justified and we are going to see the snowy version of THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012), the modern-day disaster film in which Naomi Watts and her family were almost swept away by a tsunami.

It turns out to be a false alarm, and writer-director  Ostlund toys with us repeatedly in this fashion, leading us up to some impending climax, only to snatch it away again. The drama of the piece comes in what we don’t see: in the blinding snow of the avalanche’s spray, we dimly perceive the mother grabbing her two children, and the husband rapidly moving away. Then our vision is obliterated, but not for the participants.

Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) accuses her husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) of deserting the family in his panic, leaving them to whatever fate was about to befall them and hightailing it out of there to save his own skin. Tomas disputes this vigorously and defensively, claiming that he became lost in the snow and was desperately searching for her and the children. He claims these sudden and traumatic events often provide different perspectives, and that his version of what happened is equally valid to hers.

Except it’s not; we know it, Ebba knows it,  their son and daughter know it and above all, Tomas knows it. The marital and familial discord that inevitably follows is heightened by the appearance of Tomas’ friend  Matts (Kristofer Hivju) and his much younger girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius); having one couple watch another’s disintegration always up the dramatic stakes, thanks to Edward Albee and the oft-imitated WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966), directed by the late great Mike Nichols.

Ostlund is no Nichols, but he’s not into filming Ebba and Tomas tear each other down for sport; it’s about moral accountability, and Ebba’s increasing perception that it is not a quality Tomas possesses in any quantity. The feeling that the bad karma has not been dispelled, only increased, accompanies the family’s ill-fated vacation and Ostlund repeatedly turns up the screws until we are anticipating disaster around every corner of the mountain.

To reveal more would be to violate spoilers galore, so suffice it to say that FORCE MAJEURE (translated from the Latin as “act of God”) finds tension and suspense in the same locale that Disney’s FROZEN (2013) found family reunification. But Ostland never lets it go, and the result is a highly entertaining movie.

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