FORCE MAJEURE (Turist) B
Sweden (120 mi) 2014 ‘Scope d: Ruben Östlund
Sweden (120 mi) 2014 ‘Scope d: Ruben Östlund
Following in the footsteps of his earlier film Play (2011), an extremely provocative award-winning film on racial intimidation, where a handful of young 12-14 year old black kids in Gothenburg, Sweden used highly sophisticated, psychological head games to steal cell phones and other expensive items from young white kids without ever resorting to weapons or violence (where the director used some of the actual real-life perpetrators in the cast to add authenticity to the experience), Östlund seems to specialize in theater of discomfort, placing people in uncomfortable situations where there is seemingly no way out. Winner at Cannes of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize (2nd Place), here he has conjured up another psychological nightmare taking place in, of all places, a spectacularly upscale ski resort in the French Alps. One of Östlund’s strengths is his power to observe in near documentary fashion, where some may feel he is overly calculating due to the power of his precision, where like Stanley Kubrick or David Fincher, he takes some 30 to 50 shots per sequence, possessing superior control of his framing, tone, and pacing, but he is continually commenting on the human condition, often finding dark humor in our most uncomfortable moments. While the film takes a page from Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet (2011), where a man’s masculinity is challenged in the mountainous wild, this shifts the focus to a wealthy Swedish businessman Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) on a 5-day ski holiday with his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and two children Harry and Vera, real life brother and sister Vincent and Clara Wettergren. It’s interesting to see them being photographed at the outset against the snowy backdrop of a majestic mountain range, smiling and happy, looking forward to getting out on the slopes where they are a family that loves skiing together. While they happen to be economically wealthy, they share common family experiences where the kids get grumpy and run out of gas long before the day’s activities are complete, where they have to be dragged back to the room, but the next day, they’re ready to do it all over again.
Stylistically austere, showing a precise eye for detail, the snow is beautifully captured by cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel, including the lifts, the mist machines, and all the machinery of the night clearing a smooth path for the skiers, accompanied by the sharp punctuation of Vivaldi’s “Summer” (ironically - - not “Winter”) Antonio Vivaldi - "Summer" from four seasons - YouTube (soloist: Mari Silje Samuelsen, 10:51), where the resort is tucked into a flat space surrounded by enormous mountains. While having lunch the next day at the foot of a spectacular peak, guests are busy snapping pictures while dining, as it’s a truly rare experience, but this family gets more than they bargained for when it appears an avalanche is heading for the hotel. While Tomas assures them it’s all carefully controlled, Ebba is not so sure when it tumbles too close for comfort in the money shot of the film, as the guests all leap to their feet in a panic to get away while the kids are screaming, and bodies go flying in all directions, including Tomas who grabs his iPhone and makes a hasty exit, leaving Ebba to grab both kids herself and duck under a table for protection, where they are all engulfed in white. While the sounds of pandemonium can be heard, the screen stays white until there is complete silence, until finally a few shadows move and the snow cloud dissipates. The shot is reminiscent of the Lumière brothers Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (The Lumière ... - YouTube (50 seconds), one of the first films ever made in 1896, where initial audiences fearfully jumped out of the way to avoid being run over by the oncoming train. As it turns out, the snow was controlled and actually stopped well before it reached the hotel, but a cloud of powder blinded the tourists and covered the outdoor deck. Of interest, the real avalanche was shot in British Columbia, where they built a restaurant in a studio and transposed the shot with actors against a big green screen, where no CGI effects were used. According to the director, the goal was to make the most spectacular avalanche scene in film history, coming in just the first ten minutes of the film. The music of Vivaldi beautifully reflects the intensity of the moment, especially the escalating emotions of panic, which rise to a rapid crescendo before a longer period of quiet prevails.
While the film documents each day of the trip, it’s as if an infection kicks in that slowly attaches itself to the family, where the effects are slow in developing, but once they do, they have a debilitating force. While Tomas is in denial about what happened, Ebba can’t get it out of her head, especially that her husband would save his phone, but leave the kids to fend for themselves, where they’re obviously too young to do that. This eats away at her until it spills out in unexpected places, angrily talking to another woman about her liberating lifestyle choice, or having guests over for dinner, where she simply can’t control what comes out of her mouth, as this feeling has a life of its own, as she feels compelled to berate and humiliate her husband publicly, where she doesn’t accept his silence or his excuses. Initially Tomas thinks he can either lie or manipulate his way out of it, never expecting people would doubt his version of the story, but Ebba speaks with such conviction, where her shocking revelations are among the most dramatic moments of the film, and she refuses to let her husband weasel out of it, even when he attempts to produce fake tears or regret. What’s perhaps most appealing is how the director always finds humor even in the worst and most pathetic situations, where the urge to protect oneself is a primeval instinct going back to the caveman and animal groups, where the male is supposedly the provider of the collective, so this mythical image is ingrained into our collective consciousness. Not everyone is a hero under fire on the battlefield, where wounds of conscience haunt and traumatize some survivors, especially knowing what they did to survive, while others lost their lives. It’s interesting how marriages are often saved by overt manipulation, sheer theatricality, where relationships are a fragile thing, and partners often have to heal a wounded ego in mysterious ways. While the film exposes masculinity in crisis after being challenged by mortifying danger, Östlund creates an icy psychological thriller with a creeping sense of dread and foreboding, suggesting a labyrinth of dead ends and wrong turns lies ahead when framing this issue as a masculine or feminine option, as survival is really part of the human condition.